A few weeks back, Marie and I took a cruise that visited several ports on the Mediterranean. We started in Rome, then went on to Naples, Malta, Crete, Rhodes, and Cypress. None of them was particularly memorable. In fact, I hated Rome. When Marie and I visit cities, our pleasure is to walk all over the place. But in Rome, in particular, our walks were spoiled by the constant and loud noise of scooters and motorcycles.
Pardon my screed. What I really want to talk about here is the main reason for our cruise, the two days we spent in Jerusalem.
As we rode in a taxi from the main Jerusalem bus station, we moved through the Jewish section, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish section, and finally the Arab section. I had no idea that Jerusalem was so segregated. When we drove through the ultra-Orthodox section, for instance, there seemed to be only ultra-Orthodox Jews living there. That is, every Jew we saw walking on the sidewalk was wearing typical Orthodox garb: black coat and trousers, white shirt, black shoes, and a black hat of some kind: homburgs and fedoras were common, but we also saw a few shtreimels, the large, furry pillbox hat you see occasionally. Almost all of the ultra-Orthodox had ringlets coming down the sides of their faces. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews read the Torah as they walked along, as oblivious to their surroundings as teenagers in America staring at their smartphones.
Our Arab taxi driver let us know that he was ticked off that some of his taxes went to support ultra-Orthodox Jews to study the Torah. I think I would be too. In fact, about 60% of ultra-Orthodox Jews do not work but live off governmental stipends. Their “job” is to study the Torah and the Talmud (commentaries on the Torah). The government stipend is not quite enough to live on, so many Orthodox Jews have wives that work so that their husbands can study all day. I call that a sweet deal.
There are over a million ultra-Orthodox Jews (also called haredim) in Jerusalem. Their part of the population is increasing because they tend to marry within their sect and have large families. Six or more children is not unusual.
Marie and I stayed in an Arab hotel in the Arab section of Jerusalem. As far as we could tell, there were no Christians or Jews in this section. It’s not surprising, of course, that there would be no Christians. Only 1.9% of the population in Jerusalem is Christian. They loom large in the Old City because of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I’ll get to that in a moment.
What we were mainly interested in within Jerusalem was the Old City, just a few blocks from our hotel. The Old City is an area of Jerusalem surrounded by an ancient wall. Within that wall is the Via Dolorosa, the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which contains Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb), and the Muslim Dome of the Rock. All of these spots are within a mile or two of one another.
A section of the Via Dolorosa. The scene is a small visual metaphor, with the Jew and the Arab walking in different directions. This section isn’t heavily commercialized, but you can see purses for sale on the right, and the man sitting on the left is selling something.
From the Arab section, Marie and I entered the walls of the Old City through the Lion’s Gate, and from there past the 14 Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, Jesus’ final walk from being condemned to death by Pilate to his execution and placement in the tomb.
The Via Dolorosa is a narrow dark lane full of Arab vendors on each side, some selling crosses and other trinkets to Christians tourists.
We’ve all seen the Western Wall, of course, but when you see it in person in its entirety, the sight is overwhelming. The first thing I noticed was that there is a barrier separating the men from the women. Marie was miffed that the women’s side was so much smaller, despite the fact that there were far more women visiting the wall than there were men.
When I walked up to the Wall, one old man was leaning into the wall sobbing. Up close, you can see all those prayers, written on little pieces of paper, stuffed in the wall’s crevices. (Marie put a prayer in the wall on her side of the barrier.) After a period of time, the authorities come at night and dig out the little prayer papers so that new ones can be stuffed into the Wall.
To the left of the Western Wall is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, within whose walls, according to tradition, is Golgotha (where Jesus was nailed to the cross), the slab where women washed his body, and the cave where his body was interred.
The Tomb of Jesus within the Holy Sepulchre. Notice how busy everything is within the Holy Sepulchre. There is no discernible nave.
As you enter the rather dark Church you are confronted by little buildings, various shrines, chapels, stairways, and crosses, things hanging from the ceiling, and so on. It’s immediately confusing. Because the original church (built by Constantine in 336 A.D.) was destroyed, built up again, destroyed, and so on, for newcomers, it’s a confusing jumble. Six Christian orders control what goes on in the Church, and each has a chapel of its own.
Immediately in front of us (photo to the right) was the traditional slab on which Jesus’s body was washed by Jewish women. To the right is a stairway that leads, according to tradition, to Golgotha, which is now a second-floor landing that overlooks the floor below. We descended the stairway and within a hundred steps or so was the traditional spot of Jesus’s tomb, now enclosed by a 19th-century small building called the Aedicula.
So much is going on that it’s hard to take it all in. At one small shrine when we visited, there were maybe 30 temporary chairs set up in preparation for a service of some kind by one of the six Christian orders.
Not much changes nowadays in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre due to an agreement, called the Status Quo, by six Christian orders (Catholic, Coptic, and so on). In fact, there is a ladder under a window on the outside of the Church, left there by a mason doing restoration work in the 18th century, that hasn’t been moved since it was placed there in 1728. All six Christian orders that control the Holy Sepulchre would have to agree to move the ladder, and they haven’t been able to agree to it. So there it stands. The immovable ladder.
Jerusalem was fascinating, really too much to take in during a short visit. I hope to get back someday.Published in