Monday, April 14, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (J-Town I)

PHOTO: Robert Marshall

Woke up early for our first full day in Jerusalem and headed down to catch the buffet. The Jerusalem Gate Hotel is an international quality facility and it looked like their fare was made to cater to international tastes, and it was certainly packed compared to the small dining experience at the kibbutz.

We were excited to head down to the Old City. It's one thing to be in Jerusalem. But quite another to be in the city of yore. The original itinerary, as written, had already been thrown out the window, so today would be filled with several surprises.

Because of the nature of the Old City, we left our bus behind, and would be walking most of the day. Entering the city through the Dung Gate (one of the remaining seven usable gates.), we were almost immediately standing in line for some reason.

As we were waiting we talking and milled about. Doron brought a Jerusalem Bagel, along with ground Za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice. The bagel looked more like a seed baguette with its two ends tied together than anything you'd ever get at Noah's. Not quite sure the reasoning for the savory spice. Everyone got a hunk to try.

All of a sudden we could hear blaring from a couple of Shofar, accompanied by a guy on drum. The musicians were dressed in all white and accompanying a young Israeli boy dressed in a suit. Doron said that many Israelis celebrate their Bar Mitzvah at the Western Wall, which is the holiest site in all of Judaism.

You could tell from the boy's expression that this was a solemn occasion for him. His mother was crying just like mother's cry at their child's weddings in the USA. Father was obviously proud as well.

They stopped in front of our group, and we got an impromptu concert, before they continued up the street, and out of site. We were thinking about how cool this was, when all of a sudden we heard the sound of shofar coming from the direction of the Dung Gate again. Sadly, this boy didn't seem as excited as his predecessor.

(As we got closer to the Western Wall courtyard there was a sign exclaiming the goal of 60,000 Bar Mitzvah in the 60th Year, a reference to this being Israel's 60th year of statehood).

The line finally started to move and it became obvious why there was a backup. There are two inspection gates that you go through, one for men, and one for women. Then after that there are two more gates, one for the Western Wall and the other for a wooden ramp built that allows access to the Temple Mount.

TS said that this morning Doron had came to him and said we could actually get up on the Temple Mount, which isn't something that happens all the time.

At the second inspection point they were very rigid as to what could not be brought onto the Temple Mount. To try and eliminate religious readings there is a ban on individuals bringing Holy Bibles with them. I chuckled to myself thinking of the Olive Tree Bible Software I'd installed on my Blackberry before leaving home. Smartphones were not prohibited, nor searched. At least, not be then! 

I also heard the inspector, rather sternly, say "No Guitar" and so CM had to check his guitar he'd brought for today's worship service. He'd be able to reclaim it later in the day.

Finally through the inspection points, we headed up the long ramp. On the left you got a great view of the Western Wall courtyard through the chain length fencing, while on the right side you could make out the ruins of Robinson's Arch.

Just as the Temple Mount is within site, yet again another inspection point! This time manned by a few guards with machine guns. We get through without much fanfare and enter a totally different world.

Once past the huge doors we the lose the sound from the Western Wall Courtyard, and modern Jerusalem is muffled. The area is almost park-like, decorated with tall juniper spruces and other trees. Lots of greenery.

Writing on buildings is now in Arabic script. On our immediate right is a paved courtyard, overshadowed by a tall minaret and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

As we continue walking in, one thing we notice is all sorts of young Arabic boys playing soccer. Some adults are there watching, but certainly not stopping them.

Turning the corner of a grove of tall trees we approach a flight of stairs for a grand view of an arch, dwarfed by the Dome of the Rock. Seeing it on television does its beauty no justice, with all it's aqua mosaic tile walls, topped with the glistening golden roof dome. This upper courtyard area is paved, giving it a somewhat sterilized and holy feeling.

There was a door available, and I had an urge to try and peek in, asking Doron if it was allowed. He made some comment, but then added it hasn't been available to non-Muslims since the Second Intifada.

We continued around the western side of the building to a small gable over some polished marble-looking rock. Turns out this is supposed to be the natural rock of Mount Moriah. I was underwhelmed by it just being placed there, dwarfed by the much larger building housing the Dome of the Rock.

TS gives a short sermon on this being where Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac at the request of God.

While the other side of the Dome of the Rock courtyard had been relatively quite, the same can't be said for the northeast side, where several large groups were over by a doorway. I'm guessing this is the actual main gate to enter the sanctuary.

We make our way through a small walkway, leaving the paved courtyard behind and entering more greenery. Children were darting around the hedges and bushes. A couple of them waved and said, "Hi" in English. I responded, "Salaam." CH thought I'd said "Shalom" and suggested "they don't look like Shalomers." Guess it was time to work on my annunciation after I explained what I really did say.

On this end of the Temple Mount it wasn't so obvious where the mount ended and the city began. We passed through the Gate of Bani Ghanem, into a covered area. There was a metal detector and X-ray machine on the immediate left manned by IDF soldiers. This was the first time I'd actually seen the smallish Uzi machine gun.

Rather than going through the security point, we head off to the right to meander through narrow streets and stairways. Despite the time of day, there didn't seem to be much street life encountered.

We now entered the Ecce Homo Church where there was a small video presentation in a very cramped set of seats

Next came a quick look at the Struthion Pool, one of the big underground cisterns, which collected water in Crusader times. It was dank, smelled musty and if you turned off you lights you were in pitch black. Adjacent to this was the underground water system. However, that would be saved for another day.

In the bottom section of the Ecce Homo Church you can still see the courtyard stones where Jesus stood as Pontius Pilate sentenced him to be crucified. TS encouraged us to take our shoes off and walk where people are fairly certain Jesus trod.

After spending quite a bit of time inside the dark church basement we were back into the bright sunlight at the nearby Pools of Bethesda. At this point, any sight of water inside the pool was minimal at best, with only ruins of church upon ruins of another church left to see.

This is where Jesus made a crippled man walk and I could have used some of those healing waters about then as the bright light, and perhaps not enough water to drink, was giving me another bad headache. At this point I was basically following the other people in our group, only partially able to pay attention.

Fortunately, there was respite when we next came the Church of St. Anne. Here, many of today's pilgrims spend some time as the acoustics are said to be near perfect. While we rested there was another American church group that were singing and it truly was a spiritual sounding experience. Once they were done, CM took our group's turn to lead in song. Even just a few voices were able to reverberate quite well. I hope someone in our group captured it on video.

The area outside the Church of St. Anne was lush with greenery. There was a statue of Cardinal Charles Lavigerie, the founder of the Society of Missionaries of Africa, commonly known by the politically incorrect sounding nickname of the White Fathers.

The SMA was founded to help with the large amount of orphans in Africa at the time. It was also their intention to convert non-Christians to become followers of Christ.

Several cats were leisurely walking around, and PD noticed one all curled up, relaxing in the grass below the Lavigerie statue and commented on how awesome a photo it would make, and wondered where DK was, as he was officially taking photos for the trip.

In the background there was a statue of St. Francis and I framed it just right as to look like St. Francis was watching over the cat. At least that's what the intention was.

After the shutter went off I checked the LCD on the back of my camera. It was black. Puzzled I shot off another. Black again! I had an uneasy feeling, but had to leave. (Unfortunately, DK didn't captured the photo either.)

When we got back to the bus I took some time to review the photos I'd shot. The last two were were, indeed black. I then started firing off 20-30 shots in rapid succession to see what would happen. TG was sitting behind me and asked if I was practicing. My answer was that I apparently had a rather expensive paper weight, and pictures weren't coming out.

We exited the Old City through the adjacent Lion's Gate, and down a straight and fairly steep roadway into the Kidron Valley to find the familiar site of Adi's Fish Bus.

Our next stop would take us from the realm of antiquity to that of the 20th Century, as we visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. Doron told us a little about the museum on the way to it. This was also the only place where we were given the opportunity not to tour, in case we felt it would be too emotional for us.

He had seen grown men cry because of the subject matter, and if people went in, but needed to leave, they could wait at the main building. With all that said, I don't remember anyone sitting out. We were also reminded that no photography was allowed inside the display so as to pay respect to the solemn face of the subject.

The main building was actually built in the shape of an A-Frame building, the shape of many of the concentration camp buildings. The displays were laid out roughly chronological, divided into ten galleries.

The first gallery, The World that Was, was actually a video display to give the visitor an idea of Europe prior to the rise of the Nazi Party. Next came five galleries that dealt with the anti-Semitism movement and subjugation of the Jews, ending with Hitler's Final Solution.

These galleries were really tough, especially those that dealt with the concentration camps and Final Solution parts. They had a 10 foot tall photo of the gates of Auschwitz, which clearly displayed the Arbeit Macht Frei (German for "Work makes you Free") sign. By this time my emotions were really stirring. I was infuriated when there were two teenage boys making jokes, laughing and taking pictures of themselves posing in front of the gate photo. I wanted to say something but had to walk away.

One of the things that Yad Vashem tries to accomplish, is to personify the conflict, turning the persecuted group into persecuted individuals. One gallery had displays of individual stories, including their name, what they did as a profession and about their family. It was asked that if you could possibly remember just one person's name and story to tell others that would be a important because it would not be forgotten.

Sadly, the name of the person I selected is now long gone from my memory, but I can remember the tears finally started to flow as I read his story. He was a music teacher at the institute. The violin was his chosen instrument. They had some of his actual belongs on display, such as glasses. It was very heart wrenching.

The final galleries dealt with the aftermath of Nazi Germany, and what surviving Jews faced.

I think it's safe to say by this time I was emotionally drained and depressed by all of what I'd seen. There were two additional displays that capped off what we saw in the galleries.

The first was towards the end of the main building, and called, The Hall of Names. Here, there were book after book full of names with short biographies. These surrounded the place where visitors stood. Above was a cylindrical wall covered in photos. Lots and lots of photos!

An adjacent building was surreal. As you entered everything was painted black. Visitors were restricted to a walkway around the edge. In the middle were candles burning.

(I don't see it on their website currently, so that might have been a temporary display. Too bad as it was almost church-like in feeling).

Towards the back of the museum complex they had one of the rail cars from Auschwitz on display. This was rather eerie knowing its original use.

By this time we all collected together at the front of the complex. We were given a chance to check out the shop and/or eat lunch if we felt like it. The food was buffet style again, and paid by weight.

As a few of us were sitting down eating, we started talking with another group of visitors. They were obviously Americans by their southern accents. Turns out they were on a pilgrimage with Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel. They said this was going to be his last trip to the Holy Land. (TS later said that's what they always say).

When we pulled away from Yad Vashem TS chuckled and said, "There goes my boss" as a bus passed us going the opposite direction. That was Chuck Smith's bus.


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