Category Archives: The Holy City

The Unwanted Pilgrimage

We exited the elaborate courtyard whose massive walls surround some of the holiest sites for the Ibrahimic religions. To Muslims, this is the location where it is believed the prophet ascended to heaven. The site is extremely protected and many people try and are unable to enter. Having attempted multiple times to enter during the extremely short and oddly timed tourist hours, we, myself and a friend I had met at the hostel, had decided it was time to play the Muslim card, that is, use the fact that we come from Muslim families to get into the beautiful holy sites. For my friend, this was literally a card. She possessed one of the controversial Turkish ID cards. Heavily criticized for including the bearer’s religion, it was that small crescent moon and star on her card that had allowed her easy access into an area many religious pilgrims never step foot in. My US passport had offered no religious evidence, obviously, but my Arab name and Arabic quickly convinced the guard who had greeted us with the only too familiar “Closed today, Muslims only,” to let me in. So, head scarves in place, we had entered into the peaceful sanctuary about an hour before.

A small sample of the beautiful Byzantine art

A small sample of the beautiful Byzantine art

I was immediately mesmerized by the elaborate Dome of the Rock. Each inch of the massive structure is intricately designed with Byzantine art,and the gold domed roof, the staple of the Jerusalem skyline funded during renovations by Jordan, shines with a faith instilling vibrancy. Entrance into the Dome is prohibited, and while strict rules such as what religions can enter at what times, who guards the doors, and what places are off-limits are irritable to the curious visitor, it is diligent adherence to these rules that keeps the city from breaking out into violence. In fact, it was Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount or Haram Al Sharif, (the name of the courtyard used by Jews and Muslims respectively) after Yasser Arafat refused to give up either the holy site or East Jerusalem during negotiations, which set off the First Intifada (Palestinian uprising) The solid rock under our feet was unsettled ground, and as I tried to capture the glow of the gold roof, its demand was no wonder to even myself, one of the biggest religious pessimists.

We had moved on to Al Aqsa Mosque. We had entered the prayer area and were hit with a calm wave of energy, a sensation similar to the feeling of entering an air-conditioned room after being out in the heat. The comforting feeling of entering the prayer room in a mosque had beckoned us in from the political controversy that remained all around. The women’s prayer room was humble. Every few feet another small book-case was overflowing with copies of the Quran, the Sunnah, and the Hadith. A few people had been scattered about the room praying quietly while we looked around.

Our final stop had been the Marwani Mosque. Known to some as Soloman’s Stables for the short period it had been used to hold horses during the Crusades. The mosque is located below ground. Recent renovations by the Israeli government underneath Al Aqsa have left visible cracks throughout Marwani, causing large protests from Muslims worldwide.

We exited through one of the 11 gates around the courtyard, slipping out near the Muslim quarter. The rain was beginning to fall, and we found ourselves seeking shelter under a falafel stand. Sick of falafel, but happy to be out of the rain, I ordered a small cup of humus and purchased a kilo of fresh pita bread. As we waited out the rain, we began speaking to an older Arab gentleman. After finding that I spoke some Arabic he began with the usual list of questions, the answers to which revealed that we were both of Arab origin, with Muslim fathers, and were, of course, therefore Muslim.

He immediately pulled us into the rain and beckoned us down the street to a location he didn’t find the need to share with us. Happy to have learned I am from Colorado, he began ranting in Arabic about the Colorado River, which he had seen on TV.

“It is a big river, but not as big as the Nile or the Amazon. “ He continued as if he did not hear my repeated inquiry as to where we were going. This sort of event may seem strange, but very often we were ushered into a shop for tea or cookies, so we followed without much question.

After about 5 minutes of walking down the soaked and muddy rock road of old Jerusalem we found ourselves at another entrance to the courtyard, whose wonders we had just experienced less than 30 minutes before. At this point what was going on became clear.

This man, upon discovering our Muslim heritage had taken to escorting us on a pilgrimage to the Temple Mound/ Haram Al-Sharif, not realizing that we had already been into the site. “Muslims only” came the warding off by the soldier at the gate. The old man approached the IDF guards and began explaining to them in Arabic, that while we do not look Muslim, we were in fact, and that they needed to let us in. The conversation that ensued included 2 languages and zero communication.

“Shukran Amu, bes….” (Thank you, Uncle, but…) I said to the old man, but he continued to argue with the guards, one of which had begun demanding our passports from us to see if we were Muslim.

“Amu, we went to Al Aqsa already,” I paid great attention to make sure I got the past tense correctly in the Arabic sentence so if he didn’t understand that we had already gone, maybe the guards would.

“Bil Araby” (in Arabic) He demanded that I communicate with him in Arabic. I was speaking Arabic. And very simple Arabic even.

At this point the guard was getting impatient. Having acquired my companion’s passport and religious verification, he turned to me.

“Give me your passport.” The old man continued to speak to the other guard in Arabic asserting our religion and insisting our admittance.

“I don’t want in.”

“Give me your passport.”

At this point surrendering my passport seemed easier than arguing. Was it because I was a woman that they weren’t listening to me, or because none of us spoke fluently the other party’s native tongue? Here the guards who spoke Hebrew to each other were speaking Arabic with the old man, but English with us. I was speaking, or I guess attempting to speak, Arabic with the old man, and English with the guards. And the old man was speaking a bit of English and Arabic. Regardless of the words being spoken, none were being heard.

I handed over my passport, which did little to convince the guard that I was Muslim. Having quieted the guard for a moment, I returned my focus to the Old Man, but he wasn’t listening to me, but rather waiting for the verdict on my entry from the guard.

“Recite the Quran” the guard demanded looking up from my passport

“I DON’T WANT IN!”

“If you are Muslim recite the Quran”

“No”

“Yalla, Al Fatiha” He demanded me to recite the first Surah in the Quran.

“Yalla,” the Old man echoed the guards command.

“FINE!” I gave in and at a speed hastened by my frustration and bafflement, I recited the most famous verse of the Quran. The guard, satisfied, gestured toward the gate. And submitting to our fate, we followed the old man into the familiar courtyard. Once inside the old man welcomed us and pointed out Al Aqsa Mosque. Satisfied in his success at taking two Muslim girls on one of the most significant pilgrimages they can make, he left out the gate.

We stood in silence staring at each other before we broke out laughing. Here we were at one of the most worshipped places, where thousands of Christian pilgrims are denied entry every day, especially on Fridays such as today when no tourists are permitted in due to Muslim prayer. In fact, many Christians have covered their heads and tried lying to get in (hence the recitation test). We had been lead there, and despite our drawn out resistance, been forced into the sanctuary.We took one last walk around the grounds then exited through a different gate.

Later that day, as we wandered through the mystical old city, we unintentionally started down one of the many small roads that end at one of the gates into the too familiar mound.

“Closed. Muslims only” came the call like a broken record.

“We know.” we giggled as our response puzzled the guard. We turned around. “All roads lead to Al Aqsa” became our old city wanderings mantra.

All roads lead to Al Aqsa.

Al Khuds/ Jerusalem in Pictures

 

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Al Khuds/ Jerusalem

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.

Karoof Shatan and Eid Travels

Hello all and Eid Mubarak!

I am writing now from the Palestinian Authorities exit point on the Malik Hussein Border (known as Allenby in Israel) returning to Amman after a 10 day adventure in Palestine (11/11-11/20/2010) How I got to this point is a long story, so I figure I better start writing now before I get swamped down with school work upon my return. I left for the border this morning at 7:00 am and when I arrived I was given number 1460 and they were calling number 800. Now they are at 1000, so I could be here a while.

The Palestinian Authority departure building on the border and where I am now. In front you can see the counter that we are waiting to be called up to. Then, they will check our passports and send us on to the Israeli building in a bus.

This week was the Eid Al-Adha (عيد الأضحى) in the Arab world. There are two major holidays in the Muslim religion. The first, Eid Al-Futr ((عيد الفطر follows the Ramadan fasting month and took place very shortly after I had arrived. The Eid that took place over this last week is when Muslims sacrifice a lamb to honor  the sacrafice made by Ibrahim who was told by Allah to sacrifice his eldest son Ishmael. At the last-minute, Allah brought a lamb for sacrifice instead, allowing Ibrahim to keep his first son.

The spirit of the holidays is only comparable to, maybe, Christmas, but the community aspect of the events is unmatched by any holiday in the states. The night before Eid I had the privilege of being in 3 major cities in the West Bank. First we were in Al-Khelil (الخليل) known more famously by its Hebrew name, Hebron. Then we were in Ramallah (رام الله) for a short time before returning to Nablus( نابلس) . In each city we found the streets swarmed with thousands of people. The anticipation and excitement swelling from the crowd was inspiring. I was completely overwhelmed by the sound of loud music, honking horns, and energized chatter. It was impossible to move at times! Children were running around eating candy while their mothers rushed to get the last ingredients for the family’s Eid meal. Teenage boys were hanging out with their friends in large groups. Balloons filled the sky above the heads of the rambunctious mob in each new place we found ourselves.

This is the Lamb that I bought over the Eid. Check out those eyes!

The shops at this time sell stuffed animal lambs in honor of the Eid. Of course, I had to get one. My lamb makes a sadistically MMMMMMAAAAAAAAAAA sound whenever it is touched (and sometimes when it is not touched which is creepy). Its eyes light up a bright green. I named it, appropriately Karoof Shaitan, (خروف الشيطان) or Devil Sheep in English.

Now we are at 1100- It’s a good thing they are calling 100 people at a time. I am quite excited though, I got a large bag of gummy worms at the small shop on the border! Because gummy candies typically have gelatin, it is very hard to find gummy worms in Jordan. These are processed in Turkey and have Beef Gelatin.

Getting to Al-Kuds (Jerusalem)

We arrived in Jerusalem at 11:30 pm. We had taken a bus from the border, at which I was not exempted from my usual fun. (My first trip across the border) However, I would like to believe I am getting smarter. We arrived at the border only a few hours before it closed. Then, Israel shut the border down for about 2 hours, so we spent our time talking with the Jordanian tourist police in their office, who were more than hospitable and insisted that we wait for the border to open in their office and continued to bring us tea. “I insist, sit here. I will send someone to check on when the bus is coming… I insist, have a drink….” Etc. By the time we arrived at the Israeli side, the border was about to close and they didn’t have long to interrogate me. Kirsten went up to the counter first. I figured there was no need for her to be hassled because she was traveling with me. After giving our Hostel’s address, a return date, and answering a snarky inquiry after she had requested to not have her passport stamped (“I can stamp a separate paper, but why?” the soldier asked with a sassy attitude that only an 18-year-old child can muster.) Kirsten was let through. My trip to the counter included the same exact questions, with the same exact answers, but ended with a “You are going to have to sit down and wait. Fill this out.” She handed me a sheet (my favorite souvenir from the trip) that required me to write the answers to all the questions I had grown accustomed to answering in person. Name, father’s name, place of birth, countries visited, etc. However, by the time I had filled out the paper, the border was closed, and the guard returned with my passport with a stamp on a separate paper. After 3 trips in and out my passport is still clean of any evidence that I had ever entered into the lands of the occupier or the occupied.

1200- Getting closer. Though after we leave this building we will likely spend hours on a bus…

After we were let in, we took a bus to Jerusalem, and arrived at our hostel at about 12:00 am. We spent the next 3 days in Jerusalem, and then Kirsten and I went our separate way. She boarded a service that took her back to the border, and I continued on to Nablus, via a bus to Ramallah. In Ramallah I found a Service Taxi going to Nablus. I arrived in Nablus at 1:00 pm. X and all his coworkers were still in school, so I set all my stuff in front of the gate leading to his house, unsure of how I was going to get through so I didn’t have to spend the next few hours sitting on the street. I ended up jumping the wall and then opening the gate from the inside to bring my stuff in.

The next day we went to Hebron and Ramallah. After that we decided to take an overnight trip to Al-Kuds (Jerusalem). I plan to write about each of these in separate posts so I can include enough information and pictures.

1300- Moving faster, I probably should put my computer away now. More soon!

-Sara


Note: After we were let passed this point, we were put on the last bus across the border and the rest of my crossing went quickly and without problems.