Sunday, February 01, 2004

It's relatively early on Monday morning. BBC News not so good this morning, another serious bombing in Iraq, hundreds of people trampled at a religious shrine. A little rainy outside. Today we're on the move to Be'ersheva and leave Jerusalem behind for a while. Yesterday was a religous holiday for the Moslems, so nearly all the shops were closed, the narrow cobblestoned streets were quiet, and we walked around nearly alone. Very, very few tourists here, but we did get to visit two of the three most holiest sites in Jerusalem -- the Wailing Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (pilgrims come here to follow the stations of the cross in actuality, those phyical places where Christ suffered his crucifixion).

Imagine the Wailing Wall as a very high stone wall, from Herod's time, just a fragment is left about (I don't really know) I'm guessing 100-150 feet long and 50 feet high or so. Birds nest in the wall and fly around as people gather right at the wall to pray. The wall has been sectioned off, men on one side and women on the other. Allen went on the men's side and was welcomed right into a Torah service, while I went in on the women's side. A corrugated metal sheet separates the two sections. Even if you glance over, you cannot see anyone, but we could hear the men's chanting. It was incredibly moving to be in this very sacred spot, which many believe the Holy Spirit (the Shekinah) has never left).

Actually, researchers have identified a Jerusalem syndrome for people who are so overwhelmed by the religous environment that they slip over into delusions. I think we met such a man who gave us blessings, and wrote all kinds of prayer information in our Lonely Planet travel book. We returned on Sunday (as photographs are not allowed on the Sabbath), and we re-entered the area close to the Wall, Allen on his side to take photos, then me on the other side to take photos, but I forgot. The Wall is that compelling.

We then wandered through the Jewish Quarter. This section has all been rebuilt since 1967, though in the same medieval style, narrow streets, shuttered windows. You see street cats everywhere, and people just toss them crumbs. They look pretty comfortable. Wide open squares and lots of plants make this section very livable. We were looking for St. Anne Convent which was once a hospital and canversari for the Crusaders, but couldn't find it so started asking people for help. A rabbi stopped to help us (most people do), and said, "A Christian church here? Impossible. This is the Jewish Quarter!" But indeed, he did help us find it. No sign, no number, no indication that the worn stones had any significance at all. Just a garden, unkempt, an arch, and a very old stone building in ruins.

We wandered on to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a large Byzantine structure. We needed to actually wander around quite a bit before we could figure out what was there and where it was! Here were several chapels conglomerated into one large traditional church. We saw the 10th through the 15th stations of the cross, from Christ's annointing to the actual tomb, a very sacred space. The high Byzantine architecture soared above with Christ Pancreator at the top of the highest dome, a brilliant portrait mosiac in gold and rich colors. In the deepest and oldest chapels, several flights of stairs down, we found the chapels to the original discoverer of the place, now St. Helena, mother of Constantine -- and, the deepest level of all, an old, dark stoned chapel carved directly out of the rock where the True Cross had been found. Whether one believes or does not, again, the spirituality of this place, blessed by the power of prayer, is compelling. And, in a way, makes Jerusalem more of a tragic city as there seems no resolution to the conflicts that sharpen between these groups of believers.

I think Allen has nerves of steel as he took me right up to the gate to the Dome of the Rock where armed guards aggressively asked if we were tourists. We walked up this long (and very lonely) double arched tunnel and could see the Dome of the Rock right through the tunnel. We were told it was not a good time to visit as this was an Islamic holiday and to come back next week. Allen believes it is safe. I'm less sure. But we will try to go. How could we come so far and not try to visit the third most holy site here in Jerusalem?

But everywhere the people are friendly; they come right up to us regardless of which section of the city we are in. Allen is studying the guidebook and they'll ask, "Where do you want to go?" or "Mister, may I help you?" I will remember this warmth as the real spirit of Jerusalem.

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