Here we go.. off to war-torn, conflict areas again. For no real reason but to just poke around a bit, see whats there. Our poor families. Surely it must go something like:
‘So where are you off to next…?’
‘Well I thought we might just pop into Israel, you know, get into The West Bank, see how those Palestinians are faring..’
‘Well.. okay.. stay safe..’
I will admit, we have been to a few areas that are on the ‘Reconsider your need to travel’ list. But then again, Bali’s on there isn’t it? All those bogans are damaging to mental health.
But Jerusalem, the sheer magnitude of it’s significance to the Abrahamic religions is so great you can almost feel it, across the border in Jordan. Our cab from the hotel twists us through the surrounding hillside and down into the valleys. As we approach the King Hussein bridge we pass a lone solider, holding down a check-point, with a magnificent view of the mountains surrounding the Dead Sea.
Given Israels precarious position geographically, i.e: surrounded by people that hate them; it can make onward travel to neighboring countries complicated if there is evidence of having been to Israel, in your passport for example. Even the Jordanians are aware of this, and will issue their exit stamps on your departure tax receipt only. The theory being that if your passport was examined by someone in Syria, for example, and they discovered you exited Jordan at the King Hussein Bridge, logic says that you were on your way to Israel.
So once stamped, we got on a bus, which should have taken only a good 2 minutes to cross the bridge to Israeli immigration. Except we had to sit behind a queue of other buses, freight vehicles and the like. About an hour and half later, as all those vehicles are security assessed, we’re waved through. Next, bags come off the bus, we join a queue of bustling Arabs, Jews and tourists alike as they muster their luggage and goods to be seconded by immigration police and security screened. Once this is done we go through to an intermediary immigration official who asks us what we’re doing and puts a sticker with a circled Hebrew character on the back of our passports. Then we line up for personal security screening, and another validation of documents. 2 hours after getting on the bus, I can finally relieve my aching bladder. We’re met at immigration by a smiley faced girl who asks us where we’re staying, if we know anyone, specifically why we’re going to Tel Aviv, how we’re related, that sort of thing.. but, she likes us, and instead of stamping our passports, issues us this nifty little blue visa card that we’re supposed to keep with us. Next we pass another security check-point to validate documents and luggage receipts. It’s getting pushy at this point so we’re front to back with the crowd when finally we burst through, collect our luggage and jump on a collectivo type taxi full of Americans on a kind of day-trip pilgrimage from Jordan. Phew.
Israel is only a very young state; formed in 1948 chalked out in what was then ‘Palestine’ by the United Nations as land becoming of the traditional homeland for the Jews. Jews proclaimed independence and almost immediately, neighboring Arab nations rallied and attacked; the outcome of which was a bunch of annexing and control-taking of Palestinian Territories.
Since then there’s been almost non-stop conflict. The 1967 ‘Six Day War’ saw Israel pre-emptively launch an attack on the seething Egypt and capture the Sinai and Gaza from their control. And the West Bank from Jordan. It took until the late 1970’s for Egypt to peacefully reclaim the Sinai but the conflict has continued endlessly in the Gaza and West Bank Palestinian territories, of which Israel still ultimately control.
From the border, we cross through the green mountains of the West Bank on our way to Jerusalem. Slowly the mountains start developing signs of urbanisation; and eventually the Kidron Valley, at the bottom of the Mount of Olives appears. There’s a bunch of church steeples around the place and a German woman next to me, unable to contain her excitement, exclaims that one of them is the Church of Dormition.. where the Virgin Mary fell into an eternal sleep..
‘Really.. ‘ I think.. ‘THE Virgin Mary?’
The bus pulls up roadside outside the Damascus Gate (so called for the city it faces) and we ‘pack up’ and march in through the walls of the Old City, built in the 1500’s by the Turks. There’s a bunch of other gates though as well, Herods Gate, from which the Crusaders stormed in in 1099, the Lions Gates named after Christian martyr St Stephen, who was stoned to death nearby. There’s also the Jaffa Gate, the old gate that leads along the old road to Jaffa, the Dung Gate and the Zion Gate. All of them have a lifetime of history.
The Old City nowadays is divided into cultural quarters. We’ve just walked into the Muslim quarters, but there’s also an Armenian quarter, a Christian quarter and of course, a Jewish quarter. All of them, as it turns out, with their distinct attributes. But for us, it’s absolute chaos. Arabs with carts full of dates, or fruits, wheeling them down narrow stone block pathways, block archways form a continuous tunnel, enclosing vendors left and right selling coffee, sweets, clothing and meat. Our hostel is somewhere in amongst this chaos but our only hope now is good signage. We’re seeing signs in Arabic and Hebrew and English, and we’re bumping shoulders with ladies in burqas while a skinny, gaunt looking guy in a black velvet hat and coat, with heavy shoes and ringlets in the hair over his ears shuffles past. The proximity of everyone living so close together is immediately astounding because all you ever see on the news is conflict. The Old City in itself is a bundle of confusion for the modern news watcher because you got some of Christianity’s holiest sites a stones throw away from some of Islams.
There’s a solemn faced guy behind the desk at Hebron Hostel as we emerge through the stoney arched tunnel to reception. He ambivalently directs us up to the roof where our tiny little room is. The sheets look dirty and Rebecca suspects they haven’t been changed so she grabs the attendant and demands some new ones. We give him the key, stash our stuff and disappear into the labyrinthine streets of the Old City.
Dodging tour groups of Russians and Poles, Germans and a lot of Americans; dodging low hanging pairs of underwear and yarmulkes we emerge from the tunnels and caves of the Muslim quarter and turn into Via Dolorosa. Jesus walked this street, burdened by the weight of his cross, scarred by the thorns in his crowd and lashed by angry Roman guards. There’s a point here where Veronica, now a saint, grabbed a towel and wiped the sweat and blood from his face. Today though, there’s a group of Polish pilgrims re-enacting the walk themselves. At the front of the mob are some Franciscan looking priestly types in black robes; a pilgrim bears the weight of the rental cross on his shoulders. You could perhaps only crucify a cat on it, given it’s puny size, but I suppose the essence of the feat is there. They sing a solemn, morose number as their guide out in front, on his microphone, narrates the experience for the rest of the group. The road ends at the Church of Sepulchre, the supposed site of the crucifixion, where there’s bus loads of similarly dressed pilgrims wailing and carrying on.
Not far from here, in the Jewish quarter is the Western Wall. The Jewish quarter looks totally different. It’s gleaming and new and largely residential. There’s a few significant sites here but not many, as much of it was flattened as a result of fighting in 1948. The Western Wall has survived and is the only remaining section of the Second Temple, and is about 2000 years old. All around here there’s Jewish families, commonly two kids of a similar age being pushed in a pram by parents who look like children themselves. They’re dressed very conservatively. The men with towering black hats and ringlets by their ears. They’re covered in thick black coats and wear big shoes with short pants and socks pulled high. The women have their hair covered by a kind of scarf, and they’re dressed in long skirts and shawls, and wearing no make-up. Right up against the wall the men rock back and forth sometimes quite violently, prostrating and deep in prayer, sometimes wedging hand-written prayers into the rocks. We’re on the eve of Memorial Day so the Israeli flag is at half-mast. Not to fear though, there’s plenty more around.. like plenty.
Taking a coffee break inside the walls of the Old City is an experience in itself and should be savored; it allows one to simply resign from process and watch others get about. There’s a buzz in the air and even for the non-religious it’s a kind of infectious energy. It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the layers of history. Yes, people are carrying on a bit, but considering that for so many, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that carries such a weight of significance. It must be an incredible feeling.
Bethlehem is a nearby town in The West Bank, known historically as the birthplace of both David and Jesus. Now it’s Palestinian town right on the demarkation point with Israel. There’s an infamous wall built by the Israelis that divides the territory. We pass right through it without nary a glance by the heavily armed Israeli guards. Once through, and beyond the wall a bit, Palestinian soldiers shoot us a quick glance. It’s instantly different, noticeably less developed as you’d expect but typically Arab with tea shops and the like. The Palestinian side of the wall is coated with political artwork; some famous works from Banksy as well. There’s an inaudible vocalisation here, some really powerful stuff; and the blinding contrast is that on the other side of the wall, there’s nothing. It’s clean as whistle. No complaints there.
Our driver is Arabic, as Jews are not permitted to cross without explicit permission. We pick up our guide on the other side too and one of the first things he does is thank us for choosing a tour company that employs Palestinian guides as opposed to Arab Israeli’s. Like any country under embargo type conditions, work in tourism can be difficult to source, despite the potential, and considering its 65% of the towns revenue. Our guide takes us to the supposed cave where the three wise men lived. There’s a church built there too. But most significantly we’re lead to the Church of Nativity, where Jesus was supposedly born. There’s a teeny, tiny little door that leads inside where the church is segregated into an Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic section. Right in front of us, with colonnades either side, leading to a beautiful alter is the Orthodox section. Bulbous lamps of green, red and white colours are strewn on chains all over the place. It’s gritty and grimy because there’s a decree that the place cannot be altered, including cleaning. There’s a 2 hour line of Russian and Sri Lankan pilgrims but our guide sneaks us around through the Catholic and Armenian quarters and into a back entrance, down into the small basement where there’s a 14 pronged star on the floor, surrounded by wailing worshippers. We’re moved on pretty quickly by guards given the amount of people waiting.
Like all good tours, we’re then shown a souvenir shop, and finally the Milk Grotto, a modern church built into a cave where the Holy Family took refuge on their flight to Egypt.
‘You can rub the walls here.. and with the sediment, rub it where you have pain’ our guide says. So I remove my pants and..
We return to the Israeli side. We were asked to bring our passports, as the border guards are supposed to inspect them. There’s almost a degree of resentment from our Arabic driver when they don’t.
‘Never for tourists..’ he says ‘Always for me..’
We’re dropped off at the Jaffa Gate. We wander around outside the city walls for a bit. Jaffa Rd is a modern, urban strip of boutique shops, some amazing cafes and a handy tram system. I get a spiffy haircut and take a right turn aiming to do a big-block before heading back to the old city. But thing progressively take a turn for the Orthodox. Yarmulkes suddenly become top hats and the Jews are looking more and more Armish. In fact, there’s no other kind of people here. It doesn’t strike us as overly odd, we are, afterall in Israel; but then a little old lady with a flustered face runs over to us and starts speaking Hebrew..
‘Oh English?’ she asks.. ‘You need to leave here. You are about to enter a very sacred place.. and you cannot be wearing that’ .. she motions towards Rebeccas 3/4 pants.
‘Ok.. no problem.. we are a little bit lost I think’ I say ‘..can you tell us how to get back to the Old City?’
She makes this little high pitched grunt noise and acts all flustered.. ‘You can go this way, but don’t go any further this way’ and she motions in front of us.
‘Ok.. thank you’ and we turn and come back the way we came.
.. That’s fine, the issue for Hasidic Jews is that women should be wearing skirts and not pants. Pants are for boys.
It’s fair enough. I’m one to respect culture and abide by local custom out of respect as necessary. This was simply a case of not-knowing. It did at the time feel somewhat exclusionary and reminded me of being turned away at that Jewish restaurant in Cancun, Mexico. Remember that? But contrarily here in Israel we’ve actually found people to be generally quite hospitable if not a tad prickly.
So we spend the next few days getting to know the streets of the Old Town and enjoying time with Alex and Tash, two friends we’d met on the tour that we’d crossed paths with. We took in the rampart walk along the ridges of the city walls. And typically, being in Israel we frequented ‘Bonkers Bagels’ for their daily specials.
We leave the holiness of the place, the pilgrims on their once-in-a-lifetime journey and head for the city of Tel Aviv. Where we can evidently relax about the whole pants issue and soak in some inner-urban cafe yuppyism.