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Published: June 15th 2009
Greetings; and apologies for the delay, but Jub was sending out cover letters this past week. Oh, is that you, Reality?
From Jordan, we crossed over the King Hussein Bridge into Israel. In the preceding two months, we'd interacted with basically zero working women, since almost all the waiters, store and hotel clerks in India, Egypt, and Jordan were male. This made for an interesting contrast when our bus rolled up to the border, and two heavily armed 20-year old women from the Israeli army came on board to inspect our passports--in fact, the entire border-crossing was conducted by women who probably couldn't buy a beer in the States. But despite some horror stories we'd heard, the process (passport check, bag check, metal detector, explosives detector, lots and lots of questions about what we'd be doing in Israel and where we'd been) took only two hours, and was pretty straight forward--although two Americans we met en route--a Texan studying Petroleum Engineering in Qatar ("College Station's a ways away frum Kaay-tar in ah numba uhf respects") and another who'd just been through Iran and Syria were pulled into little rooms for further questioning just as our passports were getting stamped.
On my dad's advice, we entered Jerusalem by foot--which he said was either a sign that we came in peace, or as conquerors--he couldn't remember which. But no one seemed to notice anyway, which was probably just as well. Famished, we downed our first bagels of the trip in the Jewish Quarter, and then circumnavigated the Christian and Muslim Quarters atop the walls of the Old City before popping open beers on our hotel's fabulous balcony for the first of several extended people-watching sessions directly above Jaffa Gate, where we watched a diverse religious panoply of Armenian and Greek Orthodox Priests (present in droves since we arrived just two days after Orthodox Easter), Franciscan monks, Israeli soldiers, Arab woman in head scarves and burkas, Orthodox Jews, and Ethiopian Orthodox nuns (whose cloister is located on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher--a testament to the Old City's scarcity of land and their late arrival on the scene), ebb and flow into the city.
And despite the countless clots created in the alleys of the Old City by Christian tour groups, we also saw a solid cross-section of major sites. On day 1, we toured the Western (Wailing)
Wall--which was every bit as beautiful and sanctified as we'd imagined--followed by the Al Aqsa Mosque, Dome of the Rock, and the on-going excavations at the City of David, which is outside the Old City's walls, but includes the remains of the very first settlement in the area. We returned to the Muslim quarter that night looking for cheap falafel. We were already well off-track when we encountered two boys who told us that the alley we were walking down was "closed." We explained our falafel quest, which seemed to interest them, and soon we were off--following them through a maze of darkened alleys into the Muslim Quarter's residential section. After about ten minutes, we passed a group of older boys smoking under a streetlight, one of whom stated "You two are crazy!" For better or worse, this stopped us in our tracks. We've since debated whether this comment was aimed at us or our tweener chaperons, as well as the unspoken subtext ("to be in this neighborhood late at night," or "because the falafel stands are all closed"), but after tossing our guides a half-shekel for their trouble, we turned and made a b-line west, eventually stumbling upon an
Candles at Jesus's Tomb
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem
alley that led back to our hotel where we rehashed things over absolutely terrible, $15 bowls of grey-ish/purple pesto pasta.
The next day we toured the Virgin Mary's birthplace and the simple but beautiful crusader church built over it, before snaking our way along the twelve stations of the cross, which end at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Christ is believed to have been buried. The church is a lush, super-interesting mish-mash of Greek, Armenian, Roman Catholic, and Coptic iconography--with each group controlling different areas inside. Ironically, we had our first outwardly hostile encounter of the whole trip inside the church, when a 15-year old Midwesterner who'd taken up position at the back of a Christian tour group chose non-other than the doorway of Christ's burial chamber to start flailing his arms, get literally a foot from Anna's face, and start shouting "No photos! No photos!"--never mind that about fifty people were taking the identical shot, and that only flash photography is prohibited. We managed to avoid confrontation--but narrowly . . . oh so narrowly--although the resulting long-lasting infuriating led us to return to the scene early the next morning, where we took unobstructed photos,
and silently apologized for the variety of ways in which we'd wished harm on the lad. From there, we set out for the Mount of Olives and Garden of Gethsemane., followed by Mt Zion, the Room of the Last Supper, and the Church built atop what's reported to be the Virgin Mary's resting place--the later of which we lingered at listening to a Polish tour group belt out hymns in the surprisingly acoustic crypt. We finished a full day having dinner with Abby--a good friend of Jub's from college now living in Jerusalem--as well as her parents, after which Abby took us around to festivities that were well under way to celebrate Israeli Independence Day, which coincided with our visit.
On our last day in Israel, we caught an Arab bus to the West Bank and visited Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity--said to be the oldest Catholic church in Israel, since it was the only one spared by the Persians after they invaded in 614, reportedly because they saw a bit of themselves in the Three Wise Men fresco that originally adorned the naive. Despite being mobbed by tour groups, it was still quite beautiful--if not exactly
Jerusalem from the Ramparts
Looking through an Arab souk
manger-ey--with dozens of dangling Greek Orthodox canterns, and an intricate tile floor mosaic. After heading back through a checkpoint, and briefly following the contour of the new barrier wall separating Israel and the Palestinian Territories, we finished things off on a guided tour under and along the base of the Western Wall, where we learned the ins and outs of the original Jewish temples that once stood above, and marveled at the fact that 90% of what remains of the original containment wall is now now 20 to 40 feet below the Arab Quarter. It was a great tour, and one made possible entirely by the fact that Abby signed us up a week in advance--Thanks Abby!
In the morning, we caught a flight to Istanbul, Turkey. Stay tuned for the deets on our last stop in the Middle East, or our first stop in Europe--depending on who you ask.
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