In 1937, after clashes between Arabs and Jews, the British commission recommended partitioning Palestine into two states, restricting Jewish immigration and land in Palestine. David Ben-Gurion would later become Israel’s first Palestinian Jewish leader, declaring Israel a Jewish state. Jerusalem the capital is actually a 5,000 year old city sacred to the Jews and the western world as the place where Jesus lived, preached, was convicted by the Romans, crucified and was buried. In Islamic religion, Jerusalem is the masjid al-aqsa, the farthermost place, where Mohammad ascended to the Heavens; the dazzling gold-top dome marks the spot.
Mount of Olives
We began our journey into Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives, where an abundance of olive trees captivated the landscape, hence the name. A short walk down the narrow steep hillside put us at the entrance to the Garden of Gethsemane. It was here that Jesus went to pray the night that he was betrayed by Judas. Brother Bob made the place come alive with readings from the scriptures as his small congregation sat on the stone cast benches arranged in church-like configuration. As we all sat there listening to the readings, each one lost in their own thoughts, I could only envision the Passion of Christ (Mel Gibson’s film). In order to experience the real spiritual journey we had to start with the birth of Jesus. Therefore, it was to Bethlehem we headed next. Bethlehem lies 8 km (5miles) south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Israeli citizens are forbidden from entering this region as it is under Palestinian authority; its citizens are Christians and Muslims. After a delicious lunch of sheep kebab with pita bread, our Palestinian guide escorted the group to Manger Square.
The square is dominated by the Church of the Nativity and is shared by three different denominations, the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and Armenian churches. The original Church build in 4th century by the Roman emperor Constantine, who embraced Christianity, was later enlarged, occupied by the Turks, and finally by the influential Greek Orthodox. In the basement of the church is the Grotto of the Nativity which was once a cave used as a barn in the time of Jesus’ birth. The focal point of the Grotto is a fourteen-point silver star with the Latin inscription, “Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus” (Here of the Virgin Mary, Christ was born). As we stood there, the solemnity of the moment was broken only by the chorus of the Christmas hymn, “Silent Night”, sung by Brother Bob’s group.
Leaving the Grotto of Nativity, we proceeded to the Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic Church, which forms the second part of Manger Square. It was completed in 1882 and renovated in 1999, and it is from this church that midnight mass on December 24 is televised to countries around the world.
The Western Wall
Our second day in Jerusalem was to be a rather long day. We were to visit King David’s City (old Jerusalem), the Western Wall, Via Delorosa (where one can follow the “stations of the cross”) and the church of the Holy Sepulcher. This church, near where Jesus was crucified, buried, and resurrected, lies in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. The Old City (King David City) was built by the Turkish sultan Suleiman in 1542, and is connected by eight different gates. Jaffa Gate is on the west leading to the town Jaffa, Damascus Gate (where the road to Damascus started), Zion Gate (connecting the Armenian Quarter to Zion), Lions Gate, Dung Gate, Herod’s Gate, Golden Gate and New Gate. Four different religious groups occupy the old city.
Entering through the Damascus Gate is the Muslim Quarter which comprises of the Monastery of the Flagellation and is the largest in the city’s quarters. A shopper’s delight is the Bazaar offering just about everything from food items, jewelry, pots and pans, meats, kaftans and leather goods; and everything is bargained for. After having lunch in one of the many cafes, our guide was gracious enough to give us an hour of shopping time. I mention gracious because such shopping to a woman is like “dangling a sweetie in front of a child.” Nevertheless, the ladies, including myself, took off like horses from the stable.
Along the city wall is the Jewish Quarter between the Zion and Dung Gate and is the city’s oldest quarter. Sites such as the Western Wall (formally known as Calvary) was part of a massive retaining wall built by King Herod 2,000 years ago to protect against invaders. Entry into the Western wall is though a security check-point of which the Israelis are famous for, but with the threat of terrorism I can understand their concerns. The swaying and wailing of the devout (no wonder it is known as the Wailing Wall) reveal why many Jews regard this site as their Holiest site. Men are required to cover their heads and the obligatory head cap is given. As I stood in front of the Western wall with the women on my right and my left in deep spirited concentration, I felt it was the right time to thank God for bringing our group safely to Israel, and prayed for our families left behind in Cayman. Inserted in the cracks of the Jerusalem stone were bits of paper filled with written prayers by the many people who visit the site. Apparently, each week these bits of papers are collected and buried in a secret site in Jerusalem, and so somewhere in Jerusalem is my bit of paper with a prayer.
Trying to see all there is in Jerusalem and the old city is like trying to see any big city in a day. It is just not possible. Our tour guide tried to condense as much information in a relatively short time as he possibly could. Before too long, it was the last day of our vacation, and a trip to Israel would not be complete without a visit to the Holocaust Museum. Unfortunately, it would take another book to describe all there is to see in the museum. Our short visit to the Museum was certainly the tip of the ice berg. I came away with a more in-depth understanding of the Holocaust and an insight into the human survival spirit seeing the images of thousands of shoes belonging to the victims who perished and from the narratives of those who survived the concentration camps.
Our tour guide’s parting gift to the group was to be our last supper in Jerusalem. In a small family-run Israeli restaurant located outside of King David city, we were treated to a feast of pita bread with condiments and an enormous pot of chicken sautéed in rice and herbs. It was a simple meal but presented in a four-star ambiance. It would leave a lasting impression along with memories and hundreds of photographs to cherish.
When someone asked “did you feel safe?” throughout our trip, I had to answer that at no point did I feel unsafe. I now listen to news coverage of the Middle East with renewed interest and a better understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Would I go back to Israel? Most definitely, to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and be reminded of his preachings, to see the place where he lived, died and was buried, was truly a most spiritual journey.