Nov 24, Thu:
Jerusalem-Temple Mount-Western Wall-Garden Tomb-Home of Caiaphas-Garden of Gethsemane
We awoke with the realization that it was Thanksgiving Day in America and so, at breakfast, we wished each other. After a lovely breakfast in Hotel Arthur that included smoked salmon on toast—my particular favorite—and good coffee, we set out for our exploration of Jerusalem. By the end of the day, we would be quite astounded by what we would see—indeed this day proved to be the most memorable one for me on our entire trip.
Discovering Old Jerusalem:
The drive from our hotel took us past modern Jerusalem and its impressive official buildings including the Parliament House (or Knesset) where we were quite taken by the development of the city. When we arrived at the Old City, it was indeed a strong contrast and something of a revelation. Moti led us on a walking tour past the massive main walls built by Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Great into the maze of streets that form the heart and soul of this mysterious city. We passed through Jaffa Gate (so-called because it faces the old city of Jaffa) and went down many low steps that led through the market and on to the main square of the Old City.
We were able to see remnants of some of the old walls in the huge stones scattered around the periphery of the Old City. He explained to us (and we were able to see a model of the original city of Jerusalem in the Israeli Museum on the day of our departure) that Jerusalem had been built by the great Hebrew King Solomon in the 10th century BC. It was a massive city, beautifully well-constructed and built in keeping with Roman principles of design and urban development. In the center, at one end, surrounded by the great high city walls, was the Arc of the Covenant in which was concealed the original twin tablets containing the Ten Commandments as given to Moses by God. When the Muslims vanquished the city during the Crusades, they destroyed it and, in keeping with Hebraic scripture, indeed “left no stone unturned”. They ransacked the Arc, pillaged and plundered and took away the Ten Commandments with them—they are assumed to be destroyed. The one wall that stands today on the site of one of the original walls of Solomon’s city is on the Western side—it is, therefore, known as the Western Wall (in common parlance, it is also called the Wailing Wall as Jews make a chanting sound when praying against it. However, it must be noted that Jews find the use of the term ‘Wailing Wall’ derogatory and prefer ‘Western Wall’). As we looked upon the scene of so many centuries of destruction and rebuilding, we also became cognizant of well-dressed Jews hurrying towards the Western Wall as a large number of bar mitzvahs were scheduled to occur that morning.
Viewing the Western Wall:
A little later, Moti led us towards an elevated walkway with gave us our first glimpse of the Western Wall. Although it was still early in the morning, Jews had already assembled to start praying there. They were clad in flowing white robes with stoles in dark blue and head gear that was draped either shawl-like around their heads or as caps. There was a long partition that ran the length of the open courtyard in front of the wall and in that partition, we saw Jewish women begin the act of prayer. The genders were well segregated with women peering over to the men’s side as the morning lengthened and crowds swelled. We took pictures from the elevated walkway as we made our way to the Dome of the Rock.
The Dome of the Rock:
The Dome of the Rock is the name of the ornate shrine built in Byzantine style on Temple Mount in Jerusalem on the site of what used to be the Temple of Solomon and the old Jewish Second Temple. It is characterized by an octagonal base completely covered with Turkish Iznik ceramic tiles mainly in yellows, whites, greens and blues and topped by a glorious gold dome that is visible from almost every corner of the city. Extracts from Koranic scripture in cobalt-blue calligraphic design were all over the doors and arches. At different times in history, the structure and the site were under the custody of differing authorities—the Jews, then the Muslim Saracens, then the Christian Crusaders, then the Muslims again. At the top of the dome has been a cross in past centuries—today, there is a crescent. As an architectural Islamic monument, it has few equals and I was just enthralled by the many aspects of Islamic decorative design evident all over it—aspects that we have seen at the Al-Hambra Palace in Granada, Spain (the macarabi or honeycomb design that was popularized by the Nazarids) and the striped red and white arches that we had seen at the Grand Mosque in Cordoba in Spain (an aspect of Moorish design).
It is currently under the control of the prelates of Islam and is considered the second most revered edifice in the world by Muslims after the Kaaba in Mecca. Non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering the building. All we could do was admire it from the outside. At any rate, since it was not a Friday, there was no prayer activity anywhere in the vicinity. The place comes into its own on Fridays when the neighboring Al-Aqsa Mosque which is right opposite it, is filled with Jerusalem’s Muslims at prayer. Right next to the main building, is a smaller domed structure—probably the spot at which ablutions are performed before entering for prayer. As befits such a significant monument, the entire area surrounding it has ancient structures in Islamic style—arches, domes, minarets, cupolas. It is a fantastic site for the avid photographer for at every juncture, you feel tempted to shoot. Because Islamic strictures prevent public displays of physical contact between the genders, we were allowed to pose for pictures as a group and as couples but without any parts of our bodies touching! Once we finished taking pictures, we climbed the stairs leading to the Dome of the Rock and had fabulous views of the surrounding buildings of Jerusalem from this heightened vantage point.
Back to the Western Wall:
Once we had soaked in the splendor of Islamic Jerusalem, we made our way back to the Western Wall. Crowds had swelled enormously and the place was simple mobbed with people—male and female—either in traditional Jewish prayer robes or dressed to the nines as invitees of the various bar-mitzvahs that were being held. We met an American woman from New Jersey who had arrived in Jerusalem for her son’s bar mitzvah which was to take place today. As it turned out, some members of our party ran into her.
Moti instructed us on how to get to the wall and following the movements of the Jewish faithful all around us, we too placed our petitions on small slips of paper in the prayer niches all around the wall. Hundreds of such petitions had been left in similar fashion. The Jewish women (as we were in the women’s section) beat their heads against the wall or placed their right hands against the wall and recited prayers—either singly or in groups. Meanwhile, over on the men’s side, we saw large numbers of Jewish men of various ages surrounding Jewish priests as their children took part in religious services. There were still and video photographers all around recording these events. Moti explained to us that the people were not praying to a sacred wall—they were facing the Arc of the Covenant and since only this portion of the original wall of the city remains and the Arc used to be right beyond the wall, that is where they position themselves. We took a lot of pictures at this spot and were thoroughly taken by the fervor of the religious rituals taking place around us.
A Stop for Tea and Refreshments:
By this point, we were quite fatigued and needed refreshment. Moti led us out of the narrow lanes and steps through which we had passed in the morning (but which were now filled with human activity as the shops had opened for the day) and into a small tea shop which was packed with people. There we had mint tea or coffee and a variety of snacks and sweetmeats that Moti organized for us from the neighboring vendors. It was quite an interesting lot of rather unusual and unfamiliar eats and we did justice to them as they were all very tasty.
This tea shop happened to be right adjacent to the Via Dolorosa which is the Way of the Cross. In fact, we found the third, fourth and fifth stations to be right across—so we stepped in the Shrine of the Fifth Station (where Jesus meets his Blessed Mother). But Moti told us not to linger in the area too long as we would be returning here tomorrow to actually participate in the Stations of the Cross at 3.00 pm when they begin. Instead, he led us on a long walk through Old Jerusalem and the city walls out of Damascus Gate to our next port of call, The Garden Tomb.
Visiting the Garden Tomb:
The Garden Tomb was not on our original itinerary and we are very fortunate that Moti was obliging enough to include it when Llew requested him to do so as his colleague had told him not to miss it. None of us had any idea what to expect and it was thanks to an Anglican guide called Martin, inside the complex that was in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, who explained the discovery of the venue and its significance to Anglicans that we understood what it means to some Christians and how fortunate we were to go there.
It turns out that in the middle of the 19th century, Protestants began to challenge the location of what Catholics believe to be Golgotha or the Mount on which Christ was crucified. A large segment believed that they ought to look for a ‘Skull Hill’ and when one was found that met the description in the Bible of the site of Christ’s crucifixion and burial, Anglicans began to accept this tomb as being the actual site. However, scholarly opinion has discounted this possibility as the use of the cave as a tomb dates to the 6th or 7th century after Christ’s death!
Controversy apart, the Garden Tomb is a lovely place to visit. It is set in the midst of a typical English garden (if such a thing is even possible in the arid desert-soil conditions of Israel). After a wonderfully animated lecture by Martin which completely grabbed our attention as well as laid out complicated concepts in a very accessible fashion (how I wish all guides were like him!), we were taken into a rock-cut cave tomb through a rather narrow entrance. Inside, we found two stone-hewn platforms, one of which is supposedly the last resting place of Christ. We also saw a large round stone which replicates the kind that was used in Jewish burial in Christ’s day to close up a human tomb after burial. I must make it clear that this Anglican belief is completely different from that of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches that regard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the spot of Christ’s death and burial.
Visit to an Armenian Ceramist:
The visit to the Garden Tomb done, Moti led us on foot through the Muslim Quarter and back to Damascus Gate to take us for a slow climb up a hill towards the Christian Quarter to the shop of an Armenian potter who makes ceramic objects by hand. We entered the quarter through a stone wall and once inside, did admire the artisan’s work. However, few of us felt tempted to buy although some members of our group looked specifically for mugs with the loaves and fishes motif on them.
Lunch at Radolin Café:
By this point, a few members of our group were hungry and wished to eat lunch and a few wanted to wander around and get some shopping done. Moti led us to the main shopping square where we separated with each group getting the kind of meal they desired. Llew and I joined Ian and Jenny at Radolin, a local Israeli chain of restaurants where Moti joined us. We ordered soup and cheese toasts which were quite tasty and just substantial enough without being too heavy. Cheri-Anne managed to find the time and a fine place to do some substantial shopping and ended up buying and shipping home a tableau of The Last Supper at a store where the prices were half of those in the olive-wood carving shop to which the Palestinian guides had taken us! When we all got together about an hour later, Moti told us that we were headed to the House of Caiaphas.
Visit to the House of Caiaphas (The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu):
Before we entered what is known as The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, Moti led us to the back of the church and to a stone promontory from where we had a very good view of the city of Jerusalem with its stone walls, the domes of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. We also saw the many grave stones of the Mount of Olives and the new Jewish settlements that have mushroomed there.
The Church of St. Peter of Gallicantu is constructed in Byzantine style—both inside and out. It has an arched entry way and a single side spire. Its doors are particularly interesting. Hewn of wrought-iron, there is a figure of Jesus (clad in blue) on one side and a figure of Peter (clad in red) on the other, surrounded by the other apostles. Because the church is built on the site of what was supposed to be the House of Caiaphas (where Jesus was brought to be sentenced after being identified in the Garden of Gethsemane), the main altarpiece features Jesus in ropes being jeered at by rowdy crowds on both sides—created through a mosaic in Byzantine fashion. I was struck by the fact that all the writing in the church was in French (Le Signe de La Croix—The Sign of the Cross, etc). It is possible that the church was constructed under the patronage of the French Catholic Church.
Visiting the Underground Prisons:
When we had prayed in the church, Moti led us deep downwards through winding spiral staircases into the underground recesses which were supposed to be jails in which prisoners were held before sentencing. Modern-day interpretations of the space have led to the creation of light sconces in the shape of nails and thorns (in imitation of Jesus’ instruments of torture). There are also scraps of rope hanging from the ceiling to suggest where and how He might have been held during the night He spent on these premises. According to the Bible, He was first brought to Caiaphas, the high priest, by the mob. But because Caiaphas did not want to take a decision, he sent Him on to Pontius Pilate (who, as we know, also did not quite know what to make of the situation). Pilate said that he could find no guilt in the prisoner and, therefore, washed his hands of Him by turning the prisoner over to the mob. In order to appreciate the significance of this venue, it was important to envision exactly how Jesus would have been brought to Caiaphas and exactly what sort of night he might have passed on these premises. I was beginning to realize that if the church authorities believe that these sites were actually where Jesus spent time, they have built a church there to denote its importance.
On to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Basilica of the Agony (Church of All Nations):
The Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus retreated after sharing what we now call ‘The Last Supper’ with his closest friends, is today reduced to a small sand-filled grove with eight olive trees that date from the past hundred years—this is evident in the width of their trunks which are wider than I have ever seen on any other olive trees. Jesus is said to have spent hours praying while requesting his friends to keep watch over him. He is depicted in art as having knelt by a large rock before being betrayed by Judas. A church known as the Basilica of the Agony has been built upon this rock—in fact, the rock is part of the altar and is encircled by a beautiful wrought-iron barricade (to prevent worshippers from stepping on to it). Hence, visitors genuflect in front of the rock or kneel down to kiss it. The Church is also known as the Church of all Nations. There are mosaics all over the walls of the church and above the altar –the main one, appropriately, depicts the Betrayal of Jesus by Judas.
When we discovered that Mass was about to begin, Cherie-Ann asked Moti if we had the time to stay for it. He did accommodate her request and we ended up sitting at the front pews awaiting the beginning of Mass. At that point, one of the nuns invited us to come over to the sanctuary and to take seats right up at the altar. We were amazed and thrilled to have been accorded such an honor. Although the Mass (sermon and last prayer) was in Italian and the prayers and hymns in Latin, it was still a privilege to be part of the Mass. To our amazement, the priest asked Fleurette where we were from and when she told him we were from America, he actually thanked us (in English) for participating and apologized that the Mass was in Italian! Needless to say, we were quite delighted to have been singled out in that fashion. After the Mass, each one of us was able to kneel at the Rock and worship before it. This church is also said to be the Church of the Annunciation of our Lord and appropriately, there is a large mosaic outside the church (on the pediment) that depicts this Biblical occurrence.
Happy Hour at Hotel Arthur and Dinner at Kohinoor:
By this time, night had fallen over Jerusalem and we had a chance to see the city all illuminated by lights. It was quite spectacular indeed!
We made our way back to the hotel where we caught daily Happy Hour—a selection of snacks and fruit were offered with wine and juices. We then tried to find an Indian restaurant called Kohinoor—I guess by this time everyone was missing their desi khana! With much difficulty, we found the place (with a new name!), but that did not stop us from having a very nice dinner with Biryani and a couple of curries which we ate Family Style. Our dinners were always a great time to catch up on the wonders of the day and to indulge in some good-natured bantering. Right after dinner, we marched into a gelato parlor and had really great desserts before bed.