Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (J-Town II)

PHOTO: Dave Kim

We arrived in the hotel foyer this morning, only to be greeted by signs indicating the main ballroom was still closed, and pointing us to a different alternate location for breakfast.

Before heading over I peeked in the main room wondering why it would still be closed hours later. It was an absolute disaster area. Tables all over the place. Garbage bins brimming with full green plastic trash bags. Some busted stuff on the floor. (So this was the aftermath of a traditional Jewish wedding? Wow!!).

The layout of the new alternate place leaved a lot to be desired. Lines snaked amongst round tables, and moved at a snail's pace. As it was a buffet you were allowed to go back for as much as you wanted. But, with the lines as bad as they were, it would just burn a lot of time to do so.

Additionally, they labeled the soda machines with a sign saying, "Do not fill your water bottles." Strange considering I hadn't seen many people doing that previously, nor were they running out any time soon.

Breakfast complete we headed to our first stop (Mount Zion) to visit the site commemorating where Jesus held the Last Supper with his Disciples. Doron pointed out that we really don't know where it actually took place as all of these buildings were built long after the time of Christ.

Located nearby, was the Abbey of the Dormition. It was paid for by Kaiser Wilhelm II, and reminds me of pictures of the big abbeys that are in the Rhine River country.

Doron lead us to a spot on the roof with a gorgeous view of the church and parts of Jerusalem. Doron surprised us with little wooden Communion cups carved from olive wood, which we could all keep as souvenirs from our very own private celebration of Communion.

TS's sermon lasted quite some time, delving into Communion, and it's meaning. Throughout it all we basically had the roof top to ourselves. a small family came up, but when they noticed us taking Communion they were nice enough to leave the roof to us.

From Mount Zion we walked down along the Old City Wall passing ruins from the time of the Second Temple  destruction. You could actually still see black burn marks on the stones from all the fires.

Doron pointed out some vinous plants growing from the cracks between the blocks making up the city walls. He suggested these might have been the same material used for Jesus' crown of thorns.

We continued to drop into the Kidron Valley until we stopped in front of the Tomb of Absalom, one of three recognizable large tombs below the huge Mount of Olives Jewish. From here we could look further down into the lower part of the Kidron Valley. TS spoke about Jesus and walking through the Kidron Valley.

As TS was giving his talk, the tide was turned on our group, as a handful of Palestinian youngsters were watching us from a short distance. Once they noticed we'd noticed, they beat a hasty retreat back to the safety of their neighborhood.

I found it interesting how where we stood was pretty much rural-looking, with the major tombs and nearby olive groves, yet a bit to the south was a huge Arabic neighborhood in the Kidron Valley.

When I asked about actually walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doron said that wasn't in the plan.

(It's funny, but now every time I hear this son in church, I have visions of standing in front of Absalom's Tomb.)

Next we headed for the Garden of Gethsemane, an area of ancient olive trees surrounded by a huge rock wall and locked iron gate. We needed to wait a few minutes while someone found the key to unlock the gate.

Finding a quiet corner of the Garden, TS gave us a sermon about Jesus' last night. Mediterranean Olive Trees are some of the oldest living things on Earth, and some Arborists have suggested that many of these trees were likely around at the time of Jesus. I pondered which one he might have sat under his final night as Roman soldiers came to arrest him.

I also took an opportunity to look around at my fellow travelers. Some of them had almost a mesmerizing look to them. Perhaps they were also taking in the location, and what it meant?

We went next door to the Church of All Nations. In the courtyard there were remnants of an exceptionally ancient olive tree. The doors in front of the church are especially cool, being rot iron shapes of olive trees. There was some type of Roman Catholic service going on so we sat and listened.

On the way back to the bus we passed a stand selling leather goods. Though I was only morbidly curious I asked them about a camel skin belt. The vendor quoted a relatively cheap amount, but couldn't find the right length.

Next to him was a stand selling bottled water. I paid the guy for a 1 liter bottle because I needed something cold at this point. He dug in and found one deep in the ice saying, "Here's one for you." I didn't try to drink out of it till getting back on the bus, only then noticing the seal was broken.

I should have been concerned. But, the coolness of that bottle was fogging my judgment. Taking a big swig, it was readily apparent t This was a bottle that had been refilled with normal everyday tap water. Certainly OK to drink, but not filtered to clean up the taste.

Some people suggested going back to complain, but I told them it was too late since I'd already drank a third of it. Fortunately, I didn't get sick from it. I was one of several people drinking tap water since since the Galilee.

Just as the bus was about to pull off, the camel belt vendor came running up to the bus. He found the right length belt. I hadn't been that interested to begin with, and had lost any interest by this point, so politely told him, "Thank You, no." He wanted to continue to haggling, but gave him a firmer "No."

We finally pulled off with him still standing there, camel belt in hand.

From here we drove around the city and back to the heights of Mount Zion, and the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, reportedly the location of Chief Priest Caiaphas' House, and the prison where they kept Jesus.

In the strict sense of the word, this prison was nothing more than a pit carved into the bedrock. It could hold about 30-40 people at most. We had to wait our turn as there was a group of Italian pilgrims already down there. They were singing something, though I can't remember what now.

From above, there is a keyhole cut that allows you to view into the bottom.

Once the Italians cleared it was our turn. We climbed the stairs that have been put in to allow access for pilgrims. These were not present at the time of Jesus, and prisoners were lowered into the pit. Even the slightest bit of talking produced somewhat of an echo.

Another group showed up above us and so we made our way out of the pit. Unfortunately, the newer chapel part of the Ethiopian Church was not open for visitation. It was supposed to be absolutely stunning.

Going outside, we branched around the church and down some severally uneven and weathered steps. LL nearly fell, but I was at the right place at the right time to catch her. I'd nearly fallen as well, catching the toe of my shoe. Just in case, I offered a hand to those behind me. Fortunately, everyone traversed the steps without incident.

Now it was back into the Old City through the Zion Gate. We wandered past a couple of Yeshiva. On the way, I noticed a popsicle stand. When we got down to the main street level Doron and TS stopped our group for a second. ED and I asked if we could take a moment to some popsicles. Like giddy school children we hurried back upstairs.They were soooo good in the hot Jerusalem sun. Our lips were briefly stained orange, but we didn't care. They were cold.

We were given an hour to wonder around the Jewish Quarter. Doron suggested we keep together in small groups, and to be careful if we wander into the bazaar of shops because it was easy to get turned around and not find your way out. Adding he didn't want to waste time looking for us.

Some people chose to eat lunch at a falafel stand located near by. Some chose ice cream! Despite Doron's suggestion I ended up by myself, wandering through the bazaar of shops. I could see how someone could get lost.

The area had two or three parallel alleyways, with a perpendicular one allowing access to any of them. It was dark and smelled from the myriad of spice shops. I admired the shops from afar because I'd heard that once they sucker you in with an offer of free tea, you're there forever.

As I wandered farther, there were some shops baking pita on fiery ovens, using long handled paddles to pull them out. There's nothing like the aroma of fresh pita baking.

I kept to a plan of staying on the same path so that when it came time to go back I could easily trace my steps. At least that was the plan.

I walked for what seemed like forever, until the walkway came to an end and I had to either go left or right. I chose right and noticed the decidedly different flavor of the area. Then I saw a whole bunch of Arabic graffiti!! My walk had taken me all the way into the Muslim Quarter.

After my heart came back down out of my throat, I started retracing my steps. However, I cut to my left too soon, only to end up on an unfamiliar street.

Adlibbing, I took a right because I knew that's the way I'd have to end up eventually. This turned out to the the Cardo, one of the Roman roads which was uncovered during excavation.

This area was different. Gone were the rustic-looking shops of the bazaar, replaced with art displays and more expensive touristy kiosks. Abruptly I came to the end of the cleared part of the Cardo. Now what?!?!?!

I took another left to end up on a large walkway that had paralleled the Cardo. This was the right choice. A little further down I passed by DB, DE and RV, who were heading back towards the Cardo. I told them what I'd seen, but warned them how far I'd went without paying much attention.

With much happiness, I finally reached the group, who had been congregating at the falafel and ice cream stands.

After our leisure time, we wandered through the Old City, including along the Via Dolorosa. It was interesting to get the flavor of the city, even though this was pretty much from Crusader days, and more recent times.

We exited the Old City by way of the Damascus Gate. Damascus Gate is much more than an entry/exit point for the Old City. There were tons of shops set up within the walkway, and you have to take a round about circuit to get out.

While we were walking through the area, deep within the Muslim Quarter, I happened to notice that RP was wearing his yamaka today. Honestly, don't know whether he'd been wearing it all day, or not, but I mentioned to him we were in the Muslim Quarter now and how there weren't too many other people wearing a yamaka in that neck of the woods.

He thought about it, thanked me for mentioning it, and tucked it away for safe keeping.

At the Damascus Gate, Doron took us over to the entry to Zedekiah's Cave, an underground limestone quarry area that lays between the Damascus and Herod Gates. For whatever reason the gate was locked today with nobody in sight.

City traffic in Jerusalem is crazy when even compared to most major American cities. Doron's best advice was to follow mob mentality and cross together in one batch. It was slightly scary but it worked.

Safely across we continued down the Nablus Road eventually taking a right turn down a somewhat narrow street.

Here lain the Garden Tomb, a site some people believe to be the final resting spot of Jesus Christ after the crucifixion.

As opposed to a dusty old church, this area is planted with all sorts of gorgeous greenery. One of the caretakers greeted us and took us over to an area overlooking the local bus terminal parking. Overlooking the busy traffic was a rock they suggested was Golgotha, the rock that looks like a skull, and the biggest piece of evidence they're using to support this as being the tomb.

While the current rock formation certainly resembled a skull, it's unlikely it would have survived the elements intact for 2000 years.

The caretaker explains about the history of the Garden, and the association that oversees it. We had been used to Middle Eastern and Italian sounding people giving tours and lecturing. This guy is an older British gentleman with bright white hair and a very noticeable British accent.

Interestingly, he made the point that the Garden association does NOT say unequivocally that this IS the place where Jesus was laid to rest.

At this time I'm having my last, and worst, headache of the trip. If I could've plucked my eyeballs out and soaked them to get rid of the pain I would have done so gladly.

One the caretaker finished we went over to the actual tomb. It's a typical bench tomb of the era hewn out of stone. There was the famous "He Has Risen" sign we've all seen in pictures.

It was now time to catch up with Adi, and the beautiful blue Fish bus, to ride back to the hotel. With plenty of light still TS suggested that if anyone wanted to be let out along the way back the would do so, and we could make our way back on our own. PD and WC were let off by Ben Yehuda Street in search of a coffee house to hang out in. I thought about joining them, but decided to stay with the bus.

This evening would be the final full night in Jerusalem so people decide it might be nice to go out and eat as a group, in stead of eating the same international fare at the hotel. Someone came up with three suggestions.

Most of the younger crowd ended up back down on Ben Yehuda to take SH out for pizza being that is was his birthday.

Some of us head over to another place. However, it turned out it was either out of business, or we had the wrong address.

Unfortunately BP and I had let our taxi go already as we walked around trying to find the missing restaurant. ED and someone else pulled pulled up in a different taxi. We caught them before they could face the same fate of being taxi-less. I called TS on the phone and he mentioned his group was headed over to another place.

BP and I pile into the other cab and we took a long ride over to 10 Agrippa Street. After being dropped off, I'd started to question just where this other place was when we see some TS, and he mentions it was down a side alley.

Frommers rated Arcadia Restaurant as the best restaurant all of Jerusalem. Honestly, I'd wanted to eat Middle Eastern cuisine, not French. However, I was tired with all the chasing around, and didn't feel like creating an option four from thin air.

We were greeted with a locked iron gate as they didn't actually open until 7p. After awhile someone showed up to let us in. Since we had 8-10 people in our group they pulled several tables together right inside the front door.

Groups were offered a Prix Fixe menu. Something like US$87. Though that was more than I cared to spend on one meal it was the last night we would eat out as a group in Jerusalem, and it's not like I'd been spending a lot of money on stuff anyways.

Can't honestly remember everything of what we had. It was a multi-course meal over several hours. I do remember we killed their entire supply of 2005 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon, an absolutely astounding wine. We moved onto something else after that, which paled in comparison. (When we got back to the USA, I was able to score a case of that very same wine for someone in our group, and it was less than what we paid in Israel!!)

The taxi ride back to the hotel went pretty quick compared to the roundabout way we got there earlier, and three of us go away with paying a total of 20NIS.

Once back at the hotel, I decided to check out the mall again. Down an escalator from the lobby, Just as with previous nights, it was extremely busy.

I noticed an exit door I hadn't seen the night before. Turns out this was only a small part of the mall, with most of it in an adjacent building. Walking over to it, I experienced something new compared to American Malls, security guards with metal detectors, X-ray machines and assault rifles at arm's length.

This section reminded me of any of the typical malls built in the Bay Area during the 1970s or 1980s. It even had a cineplex showing titles which had been out in the USA for a few months already.

I was looking for a camera store. About two-thirds of the way to the end, there was one. Unfortunately, it was a typical mall camera store selling point-click cameras and supplies for the consumer.

Disappointed, I headed back, pondering what it might be like to catching one of the late shows at the cineplex (in Hebrew no doubt). As I wandered back, I passed by a couple of yarmulke stands. They were like those kiosk/carts you see in the middle of the mall walkways. Not full-blown stores, with one particular themed item for sale.

A quick once-over revealed a New York Rangers yarmulke!! It was cool. It was hockey-related. It was out of the ordinary. But the Rangers?!? I asked the guy if he had any San Jose Sharks ones, but he didn't.

I left the stand and headed back towards the hotel. Here I was greeted with another security guard going back into the hotel basement mall. It was a pain having to have him go through everything, but I understood.

Near the interior escalator I decided to go back and look at the yarmulke stands again in the bigger mall. I found a different one with all sorts of sports-related yarmulke; mostly European soccer franchises. Then I spotted a Dallas Cowboys one, followed by one from the Oakland Raiders!!!

I sat there contemplating it for several minutes. It wasn't a Sharks' one, but it was the Raiders. How cool would that be in Oakland? But, then I thought about it for too long.

It'd be great for visiting the Western Wall, but would I wear it ever again? Doubtful. as it's not like I've ever been to an Oakland synagogue, nor invited to any events at one. I gave up and called it a night.

At the other security station I started putting things down for inspection, but he just waived me as if so say, "You're fine. Go ahead." I guess he remembered me from only a few minutes earlier.


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