Jerusalem: Mama Told Me Not To Come

The promenade along the beach in Tel Aviv.
The promenade along the beach in Tel Aviv.

By Kent E. St. John

Inside the market in Jerusalem.
Inside the market in Jerusalem.

As we head from the airport in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem our guide, Olry Amir, asks, “How many people warned you not to come?”

We all admit–everyone.

The city of Jerusalem is a time machine, at least the walled-in old city is. Orthodox Jews pass by on narrow winding alleys while from above Muslim calls to prayer float from needle-thin minarets.

Stalls in ancient bazaars still sell relics to Christian pilgrims. The cobblestones are worn from thousands of years of daily repetition and the sandstone buildings reflect narrow bright sunlight beams that filter past close-knit dwellings.

Jerusalem is home to the world’s largest monotheist religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All have placed their stamp firmly on the city’s soul.

Salad Dressing Politics

It’s hard to write about Jerusalem without political thoughts and newspaper headlines so I will use my salad dressing politic. The perfect vinaigrette is composed of three main ingredients: oil, vinegar, and Dijon mustard. Keep in mind that there are many types of oil, vinegar, and mustard just as there are different sects of Arab, Jew, and Christian.

The ingredients when blended meld into a tasty delight. Each maintains its own presence. Eventually, if not re-blended, the dressing separates and loses a marvelous mix. I have chosen to write about Jerusalem as a perfect dressing for all.

Labyrinthine City

The old city of Jerusalem can be summed up in one word, labyrinth. As I wander through the four quarters (Jewish, Arab, Christian, and Armenian) I realize that my folded map is useless. That’s okay because every turn offers visuals that are stimulating, as they most likely have been for the last 3000 years.

Several turns after entering Jaffa Gate and I am deep into stalls filled with spices and icons. That soon changes into butcher shops mingled with clothing stalls all with indecipherable Arabic signs. Thoughts of friends back home flash in front of me, “Be very careful, fool”. As of yet the only dangers are the sellers desperately wanting me to look over their goods.

Crowded Abu St., Jerusalem. Kent St. John photo.
Crowded Abu St., Jerusalem. Kent St. John photo.

Hubble Bubble Cafe

The biggest tragedy is no visitors; it makes for very reasonable travel. Less than two hours after my arrival I sit at an Arabic Café sucking on a water hubble bubble tobacco pipe and sipping strong coffee. I need the rush because later that night I’m due at the President of Israel’s residence. I better explain.

Because of an essay I wrote in the The Spiritual Gifts of Travel: The Best of Travelers’ TalesSpiritual Gifts of Travel and one of its editors, Sean O’Reilly, I was invited to attend a concert called Strings Over Jerusalem, Heart of the World.

Usually, such invitations get friends and family begging to carry my bags. Such was not the case for this trip.

Constant comments about the “situation” are brought up. These words from a traveling sage named Mark Twain ring in my ears:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Powerful Presence

As we check into the King David Hotel, Orly my guide offers to return in an hour to lead a city tour. We decline, and I head out alone. I want to go unencumbered and left with my own thoughts. The coffee and smoke in the café steel me for the evening’s events.

As I pass through security into the President’s I am treated to a thorough check but far less checking than for the El Al flight I caught in Newark hours before. The President’s home is spread out and in a walled compound. Walking amongst diplomats and performers while grazing on appetizers is entertaining.

Women pray on the right side of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalemm, Israel. Jean Spoljaric Photos.
Women pray on the right side of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Israel. Jean Spoljaric Photos.

Soon President Moshe Katzav takes the podium and the night’s entertainment begins with the sound of voices singing in Hebrew and French. It is intoxicating. Television camera crews and newspaper photographers crank out pictorial images of the event.

Before attending the concert, we four writers head with the French performers to an IDF base and are greeted by eighteen-year-old soldiers and a display of military gear. It’s strange but the solidarity of youth is undeniable. At eighteen you serve the country and it appears, happily. Flirting, sharing, and singing along with the singers. The buffet at the concert’s end is a cornucopia of what reminds me of college years: “What’s mine is yours”.

Places to go People to see

Jerusalem is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own feel and attraction. From modern to ancient this city has it all. Below is a break down of the city neighborhood by neighborhood.

Old City

The old city is surrounded by ancient walls and is the most culturally diverse area of Jerusalem. The walls date from 1538 though some parts are over two thousand years old. There are eight gates through the walls but the primary three are the Jaffa, Dung, and Damascus gates.

My main entry gate was the Jaffa because of its accessibility from Western Jerusalem. It is also where the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem is located. You can’t miss it, the three massive towers assure it. The fortification is a mixture of remains from Herod, the Romans, Crusaders, and the Ottomans.

The museum has an array of permanent dioramas and multimedia presentations of Jerusalem’s history. The court of the citadel also stages performances of plays by contemporary Israeli writers. Call 02/ 627-411 for schedules. If you head straight past you will enter the bazaar (suk) on David Street. It is the beginning into the labyrinth of stalls that eventually lead to all quarters.

Small signs posted will guide you to the great sites such as the Wailing Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock. The best way to explore is to just wander. One very unique way to travel the Old City is via rooftops. You will find a stairway at the corners of St. Marks and Kahbad Street in an area where the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Quarters overlap.

The vista views of the Old City are amazing and below through ventilation grills people shop the souks. This is the place to be at sundown when the sun sets over the Holy City.

Entering through the Dung Gate you will find the Jerusalem Archeological Park, near the biblical city of David. The park offers a chance to walk paths and see remains of the second temple period.

Its highlight however is the Davidson Center. With help from UCLA, a real-time visual simulation model of the Herodian Temple comes to life. It is the closest thing to a time machine available. The Western Wall is just a few hundred feet away.

The Damascus Gate is the main entrance to the old city and connects with East Jerusalem. It is also the most magnificent and offers an Arabic feel. Here the smells of spices and curries blend and Arabs are sitting smoking tobacco pipes and playing shesh-besh, a sort of backgammon.

Take the El Wad Road or the Suq Khanes-Zeit and you will pass shoppers’ heaven. This is the place to play Lawrence of Arabia! The markets in the area sell for residents not tourists.

The area the Old City encompasses is only about 1.5 miles around yet holds countless treasures, and a good guidebook is essential. The best way to do the Old City is to just let it happen, and it will.

Gordon beach is a favorite getaway in Tel Aviv.
Gordon beach is a favorite getaway in Tel Aviv.

Mount of Olives

Here too is much to see, and the views of the Old City are incomparable. The hill has been a place of burial since the 3rd millennium. The hill is also heavily dotted with sites connected with the last days of Jesus Christ. Sites such as the Hall of the Last Supper and the Tomb of the Virgin are interspersed with olive groves. You can get to the top on bus No. 75.

Modern Mayhem

By the 1860s Jerusalem outgrew its boundaries. And the building of Jewish community projects grew into neighborhoods such as Yemin Moshe and Mea Shearim.

The Moshe area is one that until a few years ago fell into disrepair. It is now one of the finest areas in the city to visit. Built on the slope of the valley facing the Old City, it is a stroller’s delight. Sir Moses Montefiore was responsible for what is now the artist’s area. The first block called Mishenot is now a great place to stroll.

Mea Sherarim is possibly the most unusual district in all Jerusalem. It is a perfect model of 18th century Jewish Eastern Europe. It is an area that is inhabited by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. The dress is traditional and traditions are also.

The heart of modern Jerusalem is definitely Ben Yehuda, party and shop till you drop. It’s mostly pedestrian and lively with restaurants, and people watching, “the young and bold strut”. Check the other side streets; you’ll be glad you did. You’ll find a lot of pedestrian checks but be aware it’s for your safety.

Wherever you go check with locals and keep abreast, travel smart, and stay alert. Walk or use cabs. Politics is not to be voiced and just enjoy. No one said travel is easy. Just be careful, smart, and enjoy!

Under the Stars

Passing through the Dung Gate we head a few yards into the Ophel Archaeological Gardens to attend the Strings Over Jerusalem concert. As soon as I am seated in the squared-off press box, the call to prayers from above emanate from Haram-ash Sharif/Temple Mount. This is where Mohammed rose to heaven and where God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son. The Al-Aqsa Mosque and Islamic Museum sit a little to its south.

The view from the City of David, Jerusalem.
The view from the City of David, Jerusalem.

Below the press stand, I gaze at remains dating from the Second Temple period. Above the stars are beginning to shine. A spotlight opens on the ancient walls and a figure dressed in biblical period clothes blows into a shofar (ram horn).

Army girls smiling while on duty in Jerusalem.
Army girls smiling while on duty in Jerusalem.

It’s moments like this when Jerusalem captures the heart. Constant thoughts of past history are matched by an actual glimpse. Fireworks from nearby Mount of Olives blaze in the sky as the encore begins. Jerusalem is still providing miracles!

Armed with extensive knowledge given by our guide Orly I am free to again lose myself.

After two days of passing through Jaffa Gate, I am amazed how quickly I get lost. It suits me just fine.

I constantly end up at the Damascus Gate in the Arab Quarter, start or end of busy shopping souks.

I eagerly chomp on a Moroccan cigar; minced meat ground with lots of black pepper rolled in a thin pastry and fried and think of the wonderful museums and sites (see right) visited.

More importantly, I think about what Mark Twain suggested: explore, dream, and discover. I’ll want no regrets twenty years from now.

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