Al-Kuds (ألقدس)– Jerusalem
I spent the first three days of my Eid trip in Jerusalem, which is known to its Arab population and all Arabic speakers in general as Al-Kuds. I was traveling with my friend Kirsten who I went to high school with and is also studying in Jordan this semester. Both Kirsten and I had more fun than we had expected to have! I hope that I can find the words to describe this magical city, but I realize expressing lack of words really does nothing to help you understand how being in this holy city felt, so I will do my best to describe the experience and allow my pictures to help where words fail.
I’ll be honest, going into this trip I knew next to nothing about Jerusalem as a holy city. I knew the politics of Jerusalem and the role it has played in the conflict. I was aware that while Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, no country recognizes it as such, including the US. This is why all the foreign Embassies are located in Tel Aviv. I also knew that under the proposed Two State Solution plan, Jerusalem would be an international city not belonging to either country. But, as a relatively unreligious person, I could never fully grasp why Al-Kuds had such a drastic role in the conflict until I visited. In order to enjoy the city, you need not to be spiritual yourself, but have the ability to appreciate the beauty of pure devotion and spirituality in others.
We spent almost our entire time in the old city, which is the most historical part of Jerusalem. We had some small excursions into West and East Jerusalem, but the old city is the heart of Al Kuds and we really found little reason to venture outside its walls. Entirely surrounded by stone walls dating back from the 1500s and surrounded by steep drop offs on three sides, the city was built as a fortress. In its most recent conflict, the wall sustained bullet holes during the Six Day War, the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. Now days, the wall does little to keep armies out. What I find more interesting is what the walls hold in. Israel has fought most of its battle for land by expanding into Palestinian territories and in that way, the “Israeli State” as it sees itself is constantly changing shape, with the most conservative politicians hoping to one day posses all of Palestine. Being strictly defined by its walls, the Old City does not have this flexibility. While the inhabitants may change slightly, the cultural diversity, buildings, and other dynamics remain stagnant within the walls. This creates a sense of permanence that I have not found anywhere else in the area. Everything changes accept for the Old City. Of Course this hasn’t always been true. Following the 6 day War Israel did large amounts of renovations to fix parts of the Jewish area that were destroyed, but in the end of the day there have been Jewish, Muslim, and Christian populations living in the Old City for hundreds of years, and they have continued to coexist regardless of the hostilities felt outside these walls. Again, not to say that there are not hostilities within the city, but as long as the inhabitants want to continue to reside in the city, they must coexist. Within the city there are four quarters, Armenian, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. While they are called quarters, the divide is in no way even. Muslims, for example are found living in all parts of the city and make up 70% of the inhabitants. The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four and Armenians make up the smallest percentage of the city. But, enough with the history lesson, on to the life lessons.
Like I said, I loved the city, so much though that X and I decided to return for a night later in the week. I’m just going to make this in the form of small vignettes. So here it goes.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher:
It was Friday in the late evening and Kirsten and I were wandering almost aimlessly through the city as had become our way of traveling. With small twisty roads and alleyways that might lead nowhere and anywhere, it really is more fun to just explore and not try to follow the map that the tourist center had provided us with. I was also a tad bit resentful toward that map because it didn’t label Al-Aqsa Mosque, and showed only grass in the section where East Jerusalem is, but what do you expect from an Israeli issued map? So, we were wondering. All the sudden we found ourselves on Via Delarosa walking against a crowd of about 300 people, foreigners, locals, Armenian Christians, orthodox. The most diverse group walking in what first appeared to be an unorganized mob until they all began to recite words in Latin that it doesn’t take a Christian to recognize as verses from the Bible. Kirsten and I stepped out-of-the-way and watched without saying a word completely lost in the moment until the pilgrimage had passed. The event that had gathered Christians of all denominations was the weekly trip following the path Jesus walked carrying the cross leading to his crucifixion. While small groups perform this ritual several times a week, the Friday gathering was both the first and the largest walk that we witnessed. Men at the front of the line carry a large cross, and a man leads the group on the megaphone, explaining the events that took place at the 13 points labeled by plaques along the way. The trip ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified.
While all denominations may join the traditional walk in peace, the possession of the Church has not been as tame a process. 5 different churches share possession of the holy site, and moving anything within the church or doing any renovation requires approval from all five churches. (There have been fights started by priests moving their chairs out of the sun!) Two Muslim families are in charge of the upkeep for the front entrance and unlocking and locking the doors everyday in order to avoid more conflict. While I would hope a place so spiritual would exist in peace, being inside it is easy to understand that it is worth fighting over.
Kirsten and I went to the church at night, which while unintentional, was the best decision we made. Throughout the Church there are large brass lights. The walls are decorated with large murals that were enhanced by the absence of sunlight and the glow from the hanging lanterns. Within the church there are different sections assigned to each of the denominations that own the church. In one part there was a very long line of people waiting to get communion. We were immediately accosted by 3 or 4 tour guides wanting to charge us to show us around. We declined and began wondering on our own. At one point we found ourselves talking to one of the tour guides. I have been on many tours over the past 3 months, but also during my time in Europe and the states as well. I have never met a tour guide with as much passion as this man. He explained that he had lived in the Old City his whole life, was a Christian, and could speak Arabic, Hebrew, and English. He led us to murals that we would have likely never saw, and explained the scene depicted as if he were sharing the information for the first time. His religious enthusiasm spilled out into his description. You could tell he was so engrained in his faith that his love had embraced the church in its entirety. As he spoke he was telling us about something he loved so dearly, that we couldn’t help but to start feeling that love as well. I wish every tour guide was like him.
Shops, Shops, and more Shops: AKA we make friends.
Walls of the main roads in the old city are covered with hundreds of small shops, most, catering to the tourists, selling a bunch of exotic looking items imported from India and China and branded with a made in Israel tag. Hundreds of scarves line the walls of each small cubical ranging from 5 Shekel ($1.25) to 80 Shekel ($21.00). The men working at each store lure the mostly European tourists into their shops with enticing calls. “This way to paradise!” “I give discount for beautiful girl!” “All store, 100% off!” Overcome by confusing conversion rates, aggressive sales techniques, and vacation bliss, the people buy all sorts of knick knacks that they probably never wanted. The only end to the stream of shops that look like they have been filled with the props from an Aladdin movie is in the Muslim quarter where the shops cater more to the local population, selling meat, clothes, house supplies, etc. As two girls wandering through the streets we were constantly prey to their sweet talk. Assuming that we couldn’t speak any Arabic, as is true of most tourists there; we had the privilege of hearing all the interesting things they were saying about us. An Arabic response caught each one off-guard. More than once we were invited in for tea and spent hours talking. One evening we headed to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher around 4, (what should have been a 10 minute walk) and didn’t get there until after 7 because we were constantly distracted by shop owners. Many of these people became good friends of ours, and I made a point of seeing them again when I returned to the city with X.
Other Holy Sites:
I would have loved to go and see Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, but because of the Eid, the visiting hours were very restricted, and we were unable to get there during an open hour. I did get many good pictures from a distance.
Just outside of the old city is several more holy sites. While Kirsten and I only saw many of them in passing, X and I got to do some additional exploring. We went to the Mount of Olives, which has been used as burial ground by the Jews for centuries. On the Mount of Olives is the Tomb of Mary, the Church of Mary Magdalene, and an amazing viewpoint of the entire old city. Though this was quite the trek uphill, the view was magnificent!
I also got to see the Wailing Wall, known in the City as the Western Wall. Holy to the cities Jewish inhabitants, the wall is believed to be a direct connection to god where people will come to pray and slip notes into the walls cracks.
A free tour:
Up earlier than planned the first morning, Kirsten and I began searching for a good cup of coffee and instead found the Tourist Information Center. Hoping to find a city map, we entered, and instead found out about a free tour. Unable to turn down free, we found the tour guide, and along with about 30 others began our walk through the Old City. The theory behind the free tours is awesome. It turns out it is funded by an organization that offers free tours in many European cities as well because they believe that tourists should be shown the places they visit by a knowledgeable local regardless of their monetary situation. The flaw in this tour is that in order to give tours in Jerusalem, you must have a tour guide visa from the Israeli government: AKA you need to be fluent in the Israeli version of history and give tours how they want you to. In this way Israel controls much of the information accessed by visitors to the region.
The bias was so blatant, that it was almost funny. Instead of insulting or degrading the Muslims in the city, the tour guide simply ignored their existence. He didn’t mention Al Aqsa Mosque except when specifically mentioning it was “convenient” that the Muslims chose to make their holy place in the same place as the Jews. While we spent a long time in each of the other three quarters and received in-depth descriptions of what we were seeing, we arrived in the Muslim quarter (remember, this is by far the largest quarter) to hear “We are now in the Muslim Quarter, we don’t have time to stop and talk, so just keep your eyes open as we walk.” He, purposely I’m sure, stopped us to have lunch in the relatively small Jewish Quarter, and took us very close to the Wailing Wall for a long time in comparison to the time of the overall tour.
The perspective of history presented was also very interesting. He divided the history of Jerusalem into periods where it was under Jewish rule, and times where it was under foreign rule, concluding that it had always been a Jewish city.
The power dynamics in the Old City is interesting. Israel controls the information, as seen by this tour, but the Muslims control most of the Holy sites. The key to the Church is possessed by a Muslim Family; the Muslims have control of both the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque. And while Israel controls a small portion of the Western wall, it is the entire Western wall that is holy to the Jewish people, but the Muslim quarter is built along much of the Western wall, restricting access to only a small portion of the entire wall.