Jerusalem: Sacred city

By Roger Hall

Jerusalem is a city brimming with religious significance. Photo / Roger Hall
Jerusalem is a city brimming with religious significance. Photo / Roger Hall

Okay, one of my souvenir photos of me in the Dead Sea is misleading. Not a fake exactly, I am indeed floating on my back and able to read a book, but it's taken on the Jordan side, not the Israeli side.

The Dead Sea was included in the itinerary of my Israel Prelude Tour but, for reasons I'll explain, I gave that day a miss.

Like many tours, ours tried to jam as much of Israel as possible into three days, but unfortunately it didn't all fit.

We landed at Tel Aviv in the afternoon and arrived at our hotel in Jerusalem by early in the evening. Being Friday night, it was Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, so there were some restrictions such as no one could make phone calls or use the internet from the hotel.

After dinner, I wanted to get into Old Jerusalem and checked at the desk for the best way. The options were a 25-minute walk down a main road to the Jaffa Gate or 10 minutes to the Damascus Gate. Fine, I'd go to the Damascus Gate.

"No, it's too dangerous that way," said the clerk. Perhaps I should go by taxi, then? Ah, it being Shabbat the price was double the normal. Instead, I stayed in.

My main purpose in visiting Israel was to see Jerusalem, anything else was a bonus. But when I realised that all we would get on the tour was a morning in Old Jerusalem, then I opted to cut one day's sightseeing and spend that time in the old city.

I didn't mind giving up the afternoon visit to the Dead Sea, which I had already seen, but there was a slight pang about missing the morning in Masada. However, my wife and another Kiwi couple reported back on what I'd missed.

Masada is one of the most significant and spectacular locations in Israel. It's an isolated fortress on top of a mountain. When the country was ruled by the Romans, the Jewish Zealots - whose name has lived on as a word for fanatics of any colour - rebelled and captured the fort in 66AD.

Fewer than 1000 rebels held out against 10,000 Roman soldiers for two years. The Romans built eight camps around the mountain to prevent anyone escaping. They built a huge earthen ramp, and on this constructed a tower from which to launch missiles from a catapult.

Masada fell, but the besieged Jews, rather than be captured, committed suicide, each man responsible for the death of his own family before taking his own life.

This historical act of defiance lives on with the modern Israeli Army having as part of its swearing-in oath "Masada shall not fall again".

The tour drove by minivan to the site, where you go up by cable car, to save an hour's hard walk. From the top, one can look down and clearly see outlines of some of the Roman camps. Also to be seen are the remains of the hot baths, the vast cistern for water storage and what might be the oldest synagogue in the world.

Meanwhile, I was doing my own thing in Jerusalem. In the safety of daylight, I went through the Damascus Gate and plunged into the souk area of the Muslim Quarter.

The narrow streets seethed with locals shopping and tourists gawking. While most of the shops were for locals and their everyday needs, there were also many that sold antiquities. I had no intention of going in one, but did so when I got lost and needed directions.

I made it clear that I wasn't a buyer ... but on the other hand, those tiny oil lamps did look interesting. The shop owner cheerfully gave me a succinct history of the changing designs of oil lamps over several thousand years and suddenly I was tempted. For $100 or so I could have brought home an antiquity. Now I wish I had.

Leaving the oil lamps behind and thanks to the directions given by the shop owner, I found myself in the Christian Quarter. Here was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most important church in Christendom, since this is supposedly the site where Christ was crucified.

The church is run jointly by many Christian sects, not always smoothly as had been spectacularly demonstrated on television the week before when a free fight broke out between Greek Orthodox priests and their Armenian counterparts.

The church was jammed with religious groups eager to see the many significant sites: the stone of unction where Christ's body was anointed and wrapped; Golgotha, the outcrop of rock where he was crucified; and above all, Christ's Tomb, where visitors had to wait at least an hour to get into the tiny chapel to see it. Whether you are a Christian or not, the church is a must.

Nearby is the Via Dolorosa, the route where Christ (again, supposedly) walked carrying the cross. Each of the 14 stations of the cross is marked, and there were groups joining together to carry what appeared to be a lightweight version (certainly not sturdy enough to bear the weight of a crucified man) along the same route.

Then from the Christian into the Jewish Quarter, where one of the must-see sights is the Wailing Wall, which is all that remains of the ancient temple. This was familiar from numerous images on television, but until actually being there I had no idea of either the significance of its location or its history. Anyone can go right up to the wall (as long as you have your head covered).

Thousands of people were there, scribbling prayers on pieces of paper and stuffing them into crevices. All kinds of prayers are uttered - several I heard were from the Book of Psalms - and (again, whatever your beliefs) simply being there is a moving experience.

The next day was our official tour of Jerusalem and, to set the scene, our guide drove us to the Mount of Olives, where there was a superb view of the city, and gave us a 25-minute talk on the history of Jerusalem. Then he took us efficiently through the city in two and a half hours.

In the afternoon we visited the superb Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. A fine contemporary building, at first it seems to be just one long corridor with items on display every few metres. In fact, there are numerous galleries on either side, unfolding the step-by-step slide into the horrors of the Holocaust.

Six million deaths are almost incomprehensible, but Yad Vashem specialises in bringing it down to the individual tragedy it represented for countless individuals and families.

There are numerous filmed personal accounts of those who went through it. One Dutch woman describes how she and her sister and her mother had successfully hidden when the Nazis took their father away. But some months later, the Nazis returned, this time for the mother. The sisters hid in a cupboard. They heard their mother saying, "May I get a coat?". She was given permission and came up the stairs to where her daughters were, opened the door and said quietly, "Goodbye children".

At this point I could take no more and sat down for a while, in tears.

On our final day we were collected for the drive to Nazareth, where the Annunciation took place and where Jesus spent his first years. But there is little sense of that history since the Basilica of the Annunciation was built (to a splendid, modern design) in 1969, and St Joseph's Church, supposedly where Joseph had his home and workshop, was rebuilt in 1949.

From Nazareth to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, another site of huge significance in the New Testament, where people reverently dip their hands into its water. Unfortunately, the water level is falling at an alarming rate due to overuse.

Finally to Yardenit baptismal garden, one of the possible sites of John's baptism of Jesus.

It was obviously set up to cater for big numbers with changing rooms and ramps down into the water and guard rails for the sick and infirm.

On the bus was a pastor from South Africa who wanted to be baptised there but, alas, there was no one among all the Christian visitors present at that time who spoke English.

Our guide, who had been first class throughout, delivered us to Tel Aviv and early the next morning we were driven to the airport to start the journey home. During all this time our guide never mentioned the words "Palestine" or "Palestinians" nor did we get to see the security wall that surrounds Jerusalem.

A pity. Our tour had shown us historical Israel, so we now had a better understanding of the country's past. Perhaps some time spent on more recent history would give us a better understanding of the present.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Israel's national airline, El Al, doesn't fly to New Zealand. There are several options for linking with El Al, including: Auckland-Bangkok on Thai Airways, then Bangkok-Tel Aviv on El Al; Auckland-Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific or Air New Zealand, then Hong Kong-Tel Aviv on El Al. El Al's New Zealand representative is on the web at aviationandtourism.co.nz

Getting around: House of Travel has a 12-day group tour with Peregrine Adventures, called Jordan and Israel Explorer, which visits Jerusalem plus the Jordanian capital of Amman, the rose red stone city of Petra, Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Dead Sea from $4390 per adult share twin.

Further information: Israel's official website for visitors is at goisrael.com

Roger Hall paid his own way to the Middle East.

- NZ Herald

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