Normally before any trip, I’m positively giddy. The truth is that I love everything about traveling from the stress of packing to passing through security to crappy airplane food. I’m 100% thrilled to be on my way somewhere, anywhere. On our way to Tel Aviv, though, I had the very unfamiliar feeling of internal apprehension. I had no idea what to expect.
I would love to be able to tell you that we landed at the airport and a huge wave of relief washed over me. However, despite the modernity of Tel Aviv airport, our superb hotel just outside of the old city, randomly meeting incredible people, chatting with Spanish priests and Jewish tour guides, and debating who is a better football player (Christiano or Messi) with Israeli soldiers, that feeling of conflict never left me, no matter how hard I fell in love with the city.
We spent five days exploring Israel from the lush area around the Sea of Galilee to the barren Dead Sea and everything in between. Throughout it all, I remained contemplatively awed by everything we were seeing.
Trying to reconcile my non-religiousness while we supposedly walked in the steps of Jesus was an odd feeling. And of course, the political issues behind the conflictive relationship between Israelis and Palestinians wrestled in my mind constantly, especially as we passed security check points and drove through contested Israeli settlements. I’m still trying to figure it all out and get my point of views straight on the situation, but for the sake of this silly old blog, I’m just going to focus on the best parts of Israel and what I’ve seen.
The Old City
As one of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem’s history has been turbulent, to put it mildly. Inside the walls of the old city, Jerusalem is a labyrinth of narrow streets that snake and slither throughout the four parts of the city, the Jewish quarter, the Muslim quarter, the Christian quarter, and the Armenian quarter.
As its profound history suggests, Jerusalem is filled with an amazing amount of religious landmarks, but there are three principle sites that are familiar to most of the world, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Sepulchre, and of course, the Western Wall. These three sights represent the Abrahamic family of religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The Western Wall
We arrived on a late Friday afternoon, just at the start of the Sabbath. After checking in to the hotel, we entered the Jaffa Gate through the Armenian quarter and headed to the Western Wall. As it was sunset on Friday, which marks the beginning of the Sabbath, we saw a massive crowd of ultra-orthodox Jews and their families holding Friday prayer at the wall. It was sight unlike any other I had seen before, with payot-ed fathers and their children chanting and swaying back and forth at the wall, deep in devout prayer. It’s incredibly emotional to watch.
The wall is open for anyone to pray, women on one side and men on the other. To be honest, when we were there on Friday evening, there was such a massive crowd of Jewish families praying, it seemed a bit intrusive and maybe inappropriate to enter as a tourist, so we just watched from afar at that moment. As far as photos go, it is forbidden to take photos on the Sabbath, so I withheld my camera until we returned the next day.
So, what’s up with this wall, exactly? I’d heard about it many times, seen photos, videos and know of its importance to the Jewish population. But what makes it so special?
To understand the significance, we have to go back to the time of the original Temple Mount that was built by King Solomon around 10th century BC. From there, we consult Wikipedia:
Judaism regards the Temple Mount as the place where God chose the Divine Presence to rest (Isa 8:18); according to the rabbinic sages whose debates produced the Talmud, it was from here the world expanded into its present form and where God gathered the dust used to create the first man, Adam. The site is the location of Abraham’s binding of Isaac, and of two Jewish Temples. According to the Bible the site should function as the center of all national life—a governmental, judicial and, of course, religious center.
The Temple Mount is said to have held what has to be my most favorite phrase of all time, the “Holy of the Holies”. Here, let me Wiki again:
The Holy of Holies is a term in the Hebrew Bible which refers to the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle and later the Temple in Jerusalem where the Ark of the Covenant was kept during the First Temple, which could be entered only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur. The Ark of the Covenant is said to have contained the Ten Commandments, which were believed to have been given by God to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
The Destruction of the Wall
In 66 AD, the Jews of Judea rebelled against the Roman Empire. As revenge, Emperor Nero sent soldiers to wage a fierce destruction on the entire city and its people. In the year 70, the soldiers ransacked the city, burning everything in sight and destroying the Holy Temple, which served as the center of Judaism.
Over the years, the area around the wall has been the setting for multiple clashes between Muslims and Jews. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the wall came under control of Jordan and Jews were banned from the site until 1967, when they took back control.
The Tunnels Underneath
One thing that I did not know was that the wall actually extends well below the current street level. After the end of the six-day war in 1967, the Ministry of Religious Affairs began a massive excavation project that lasted 20 years.
Deep underneath the street level of the Western Wall, archaeologists uncovered layers and layers of the original old city including various rooms and public halls, a section of a Second Temple road, a Hasmonean water tunnel, a pool, and the entire length of the Western Wall – 488 meters long.
We took a tour of tunnels that lasted about 2 hours and I can’t recommend it enough. It was just incredible to be able to wander through such history that had been undiscovered for so long. I didn’t take many photos, but to get an idea of the tunnel awesomeness, check out this site.
So, as you can see, not only is Jerusalem an incredible city, but I’ve had a lot of coffee this morning. Yes, this educational post is bought to you by today’s many cafe cortos. And yet, I still have so much more to tell you and an absurd amount of photos. For example, this one of your mom is nice: