While we enjoyed playing music on the streets, we also took our time to be tourists. There was a lot to see! We walked down the narrow labyrinthine streets of the Old City. Many were lined with small shops selling anything they could. Hundreds of thousands of tourists file through every year. Only having a few seconds to catch a potential buyer’s attention, the shopkeepers were quite animated. The thick aroma of incense permeated the air. The colorful stock of trinkets and cloth was candy for the eyes, if not a sensory overload.
Jerusalem is the religious and historical epicenter of the world. It is unique among all the cities in the Bible, being mentioned over 800 times. The Old City covers roughly 220 acres (one square kilometer) and is shared between many denominations. Hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims came to see the incredible site. Jerusalem is also said to be where Muhammad rose into the heavens in Islam.
The Old City
Central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The Old City has a total of 11 gates, but only seven are open (Jaffa, Zion, Dung, Lions’ [St. Stephen’s], Herod’s, Damascus [Shechem], and New). One of the closed gates is the Golden Gate, located above ground level and below the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through this gate when he comes. To prevent him from coming, the Muslims sealed the gate in 1541 during the rule of The Ottoman emperor Suleiman.
The Western Wall in the Old City Jewish Quarter is also known as the “Wailing Wall.” It is the last remaining wall of the Jewish Temple compound and is the holiest site in Judaism. As we walked to the Western Wall, we saw an angel. Well, a busker dressed as an angel playing a lyre and singing. His huge wings were more impressive than his song, but he was funny. We approached the enormous 65 feet (20 meters) high Wall. We found that it is divided by a fence with a small area for ‘women only’ on one side. A larger area for ‘men only’ was on the other.
The Wall of the Old City
We were lucky that it was not crowded while we visited. Donna entered the women’s side and I to the men’s. Since I didn’t have a yarmulke of my own, I was offered a paper one to wear while near the Wall. The texture of the stones was not rough. Smoothed down by the millions of people that had touched and caressed the Wall while praying. Small pieces of paper with messages and prayers are pushed into the cracks between the stone of the Wall. They hope they will be answered. Touching the wall was an emotional experience considering all the hopes, dreams, prayers, and energy embued into it over these many centuries. On the men’s side is an entrance to a tunnel into a medieval complex of subterranean vaulted spaces. Also a long corridor with rooms on either side. I began to walk in and investigate. Then I felt I was going to disturb what appeared to be preparations for a bar mitzvah.
Keys to the Church
After leaving the Wall, we found our way through the maze of streets and shops selling religious souvenirs. Soon we arrived at the Church of the Sepulcher. The sprawling Church covers what Christians believe is the site of the most important historical event. The place where Jesus Christ was crucified and rose from the dead.
The 800-year-old Crusader façade has two massive wooden doors at the church’s entrance. One has been blocked since the days of the Muslim ruler Saladin in the 13th century. The second door is opened and closed daily in a modest ceremony conducted by a Muslim family representative holding the key to the church. Interestingly, none of the denominations own the main entrance.
In 1192, Salahuddin Ayyubi assigned responsibility for it to two neighboring Muslim families. The Joudeh were entrusted with the key. The Nusseibeh, who had been the custodians of the church since the days of Caliph Umar, retained the position of opening the door. This arrangement has persisted into modern times as no Christian sect will trust the others with the key. Every morning and evening, two armed Israeli soldiers accompany a member of the Joudeh family, who brings the door’s great key to a member of the Nusseibeh family, who unlocks or locks the door.
the Church of the Sepulcher
Once inside the church, we saw a reddish stone slab with a row of oil lamps hanging above it. This is the Stone of the Unction (Anointing), where Jesus’ body was laid after being removed from the crucifix and prepared for burial. We walked up a steep and curving flight of stairs of the “hill” of Calvary (from Latin) or Golgotha (from Aramaic). Both words mean “place of the skull.” The stairs open onto a floor that is level with the top of the rocky outcrop on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and the most extravagantly decorated part of the church. Talk about sensory overload!
Calvary is two chapels. One is Greek Orthodox, and the other is Catholic. The Greek Orthodox chapel’s altar is over the rock of Calvary, also the 12th Station of the Cross. A silver disc beneath the Greek altar marks the place where it is believed the cross stood. The limestone rock of Calvary may be touched through a round hole in the disc. So we did. On the right, under glass, a fissure in the rock can be seen. Some believe the earthquake caused this at the time Christ died.
From there, we went down into the Rotunda, a huge dome decorated with a starburst of light, with 12 rays representing the apostles, supported by massive pillars. In the center is a stone structure known as the “little house,” with its entrance flanked by rows of enormous candles. This is the Tomb of Christ, the Fourteenth Station of the Cross. This stone monument encloses the tomb (sepulcher) where it is believed Jesus Christ lay buried for three days, and then rose from the dead.
All in all, the incredibly extravagant, ostentatious decor throughout the bewildering conglomeration of 30-plus chapels and worship spaces was like nothing we had ever seen before or since. We had been lucky in our timing again as the crowds were at a minimum. Walking casually and standing in veritably no lines to see anything. We decided we had enough energy for one more tourist destination. The tomb of King David.
King David’s Tomb
A fifteen-minute walk through the Old City and out of the Zion Gate brought us to Mount Zion and the Tomb of King David. As it is with so many Biblical descriptions of dates and locations, the Tomb location is a point of contentious debate. Nonetheless, it remains the site directly underneath the Cenacle, where Christians commemorate the Last Supper, and remains a place of pilgrimage for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. A simple sarcophagus draped with a velvet cloth embroidered with stars of David and inscriptions from the Jewish Scriptures, it somehow touched us more than the overly ornate Church of the Sepulcher.
Satisfied and tired, we returned to Edna’s house and told her of our day’s adventures in the Old City. This is when we met the mysterious tenant that was living in the other bedroom. She was a nice young woman with her young son. Edna cooked up a delicious meal that she shared with us all. With our full stomachs and tiring day of being tourists, we couldn’t stay up that evening and went to bed so we would be ready to tackle another day of busking.
Next: Club Segal