Jerusalem is a city of opposites and extremes, of curiosity and revelation, with breadth and depth that is unequalled in the world. It is the birthplace of monotheism. The thoughts that follow include new understanding and personal insight from exposure to new facts, places and ideas. This exposure turned a good vacation into a great life experience.
The parallelisms evident through the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam deserve a brief overview for perspective, offering insight into these religions that even secularists might appreciate.
Adam to Abraham to Jesus to Mohammed
Jerusalem is a destination for religious reasons for many people, so it's logical to begin here. All three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe that Adam was the first man, and Eve his wife. They ate forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden, man’s first sin, and were set off out of the Garden of Eden into the world by God. Later, Abraham, a righteous man and father of all three religions, was tested by God (was Abraham testing God?), when God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac to show his fealty to God. Abraham brought Isaac to the altar on Mount Moriah, the height of the land in Jerusalem, today held within the Temple Mount, before God stopped him, presenting instead a ram, symbolizing God’s wish never to condone humans sacrificing humans. We are all created in God’s image. Life is precious: Thou Shalt not Kill.
Consider this backdrop as we visited the Western Wall my second time. (The first visit has its own story). I paused nearby to read the inscription of the ‘Binding of Isaac’., where the father prepares to kill his first son. After donning a yarmulke I approached the wall, and was overcome by emotion, reminded from my Christian heritage that God sacrificed to mankind his only son, that we may be forgiven our sins. If in the early Jewish religion sacrificing a sheep was better than a dove, a cow better than a sheep; what does sacrificing your only Son for the benefit of mankind convey? This is a powerful place for people of faith, and it struck me unexpectedly deeply.
Shalom, Salaam, Peace.
Shalom is a Jewish greeting, Salaam Arabic, both words meaning Peace. In the Arab quarter, ‘Salaam’ or a variation (as-salaam 'alaykum, or ahlan wa sahlan) is a greeting that works… usually. When challenged by a young shopkeeper with an edge, ‘What is Salaam?’, Peace, I replied. ‘What is Peace? Do we have peace?’, I was reminded of the plight of Palestinain cab drivers, indigenous Isreali Arabs, and other Muslims we met. I replied, ‘God willing, some day there will be Peace’, which defused the exchange, but reminded us of the undercurrents of a land where many religions converge, and convergence is not always peaceful.
The Western Wall, where only 50% shows above ground. There are another 17 courses below ground.
Breadth and Depth
The breadth and depth of religions (including cultural manifestations) is everywhere. Within the Jewish community, for example, the ultra-orthodox play an over-sized role as kingmakers in Israeli politics. While they represent a relatively small minority, they coalition with Likud, extracting goodies: e.g. no busses on Shabat (sabbath), and continuation of a 1948 law allowing Yeshiva (students of the Torah) to study - at taxpayer expense - in some cases indefinitely. We experienced schisms evident on election day - Tuesday - as Bibi Netanyahu continued on as Prime Minister for his sixth term. Secularists are unhappy with the absence of busses on Saturdays and with their paychecks supporting lifetime students. Between these bookends on simple religious / political spectra are many Jews, from literally all around the world, on multiple other spectra.
Below are pictures of a Bedouin village and an Israeli Settlement, both in the West Bank.
Christianity’s breadth is on display at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is the site of Golgotha Hill where Christ was crucified, as well as the site of his burial chamber. (As an aside, a floor below Golgotha, evident through glass is the same rock with red streaks: where - according to legend - Jesus’ blood permeated the rock, reaching Adam’s skull, symbolizing Christ’s blood freeing Adam from original sin). Heady stuff.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is too holy for one denomination, so it is managed by six Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac Orthodox. The effectiveness of this management by committee is evident in a ladder set upon a balcony above the main entrance, and unmoved since 1757, a testament to the Status Quo rule: that no order may change or rearrange anything without approval of the other five represented denominations.
Note the ladder below the middle window at Church of the Holy Sepulcher
An alternative ‘Golgotha’ - the Place of the Skull - with its own burial chamber nearby, ‘discovered’ by Charles Gordon (of Sudanese fame) outside the walls in the late 19th century, appeals today to Evangelical Protestants.
Islamic breadth in Israel was not as evident with our limited exposure, but one metric is civic engagement: citizenship for resident Arabs with voting rights and economic opportunity are a long way from Palestinians on the West Bank (aka - the occupied territories). Here prominent signs at crossroads entering ‘Zone A’ warn Israelis that entering may cost them their lives, and where taxes (collected by Israel) are transferred for disbursement to the Palestinian Authority where leadership is less responsive: taxation without representation. Arab engagement with the political process may vary, but one unifying force is recognition that political leaders don’t care much about them. The disappointment and frustration is evident, and manifestly understandable.
Roads within the Palestinian Authority allow for travel, but Israelis may not stop or enter.
The most unifying force in our experience was economic, revealing today’s BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) promoted by a Palestinian from Qatar) for its purely political and provocative ends.
A Land of Extremes
We met a group of three young Palestinians at the Dead Sea. It’s a resort. You can float in the Sea, enjoy a mud bath, ride a camel for a few shekels, have a meal or a drink, and hang out by the pool. These three young men explained that they live in a small village, and left their wives at home with their families, explaining that they didn’t want to expose them to the women in swimsuits, the drinking, overt capitalism (skin care products, ladies?), and other western / modern influence at the resort.
Juxtapose this to our day in Jaffa / Tel Aviv, with beautiful young men and women on the beach and a bar every few hundred meters. The latter may seem normal, but it’d’ve been as extreme to these rural Palestinian men as their sheltering their wives from a resort seems to us.
Tel Aviv is also the recipient of good healthy rainfall out of the Eastern Med. The land is lush (think Jaffa oranges) with a European feel. As the land rises 2,500 feet to Jerusalem, most moisture is squeezed out of the clouds, terminating at Jerusalem. Immediately to the east is the Judean Desert (more about John the Baptist and Jesus before we are done), a land dominated by the Dead Sea and bordered with Jordan River, receiving less than 10 cm water annually.
The Jordan River baptismal site and the Dead Sea resort were highlights, for different reasons, but both offered simple pleasures, and timely breaks from information overload. Below are the Jordan River (baptismal site), and checking email while floating in the (30% salinity) Dead Sea.
War and Peace
In 1967, several Arab nations staged a surprise military assault on Israel in what would become known as the Six Days War. Having secured their borders (as it turned out, for only anther six years, until 1973), Israel began digging. Many of the ancient sites we visited, Qumran (Dead Sea scrolls), Herodium, and the City of David, had been lost to time until recently. But since Jews had been expelled from Israel since the second rebellion (against Rome) in about 165 CE, there was a sense that showing Judean history can better secure their place today. Excavating and exposing the Western Wall (of the Temple, which Romans destroyed) was one initiative that drew Islamic ire since most Muslims believe that Muhammad ascended to heaven from the very spot where Abraham bound Isaac, where the Temple itself stood, and its Western Wall stands today.
Today the three religions cohabitate the Old City’s respective quarters mostly peacefully. But agitators agitate. The entrance to the Temple Mount (Muslim controlled) is at the Western Wall. Shortly before we ascended, we heard a group of young men boldly singing Zionist songs as they approached this Islamic holy place. Israeli security or Islamic proctors managed to silence them, but offence and escalation is never further than the next street corner.
War and Death… long ago
New understanding from archaeological sites is often framed by “First Temple”, ‘Second Temple’, and first and second rebellions; we knew nothing about these on our arrival. But they frame some core ideas today, and are worth summarizing. The First Temple was built by Soloman in about the 10th century BCE. That’s three thousand years ago. Early Jews worshiped there, until the Babylonians (led by Nebuchadnezzar) conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Babylon expelled the Jews about 500 years later, so they returned to Jerusalem to build the Second Temple. Another 500 years later, King Herod added magnificence to the building (We climbed the stairs that Jesus climbed to enter the Temple to flip the tables of the money changers.). In about 66 CE, the first revolt against the Romans occurred, with a predictably forceful result. About 60 years later (132 CE) the bar Kokba revolt resulted in the most forceful consequence. Fighters held out in two of our visited sites: Herodium and Masada, two of Herod’s palaces. But the Romans hunted down and killed the last Jew to prevent another insurrection, Jewish slaves could be bought for less cost than a half day’s horse’s ration. The Jews would not repopulate the area for nearly 2000 years.
One of the last holdouts was Masada, Herod’s palace located on top of a mountaintop near the Dead Sea (which we visited). Its cisterns held water and stores were adequate. After an 8-month siege, the Roman army breached the northern gate. That night, 960 soldiers committed mass suicide, preferring to die on their own terms to being slaughtered - or sold into slavery - by Romans.
The area’s climate has preserved many elements of those days including the siege line and eighth encampments, and its remote location preserved its outline well.
Herodium was another Herod palace and burial site we visited, near East Jerusalem, an incredibly restored site since its recent excavation.
Another religious parallel
Moses led the Israelis out of Egypt, but he never led them out of the Jordanian desert (today’s trans-Jordan). That job was left to Joshua, who led the Israelite's out of the desert, across the Jordan River, to the land of milk and honey: Israel. ‘Jeshua’ is the Aramaic name for Joshua, and the name of the prophet who led Gentiles out of their wilderness after his baptism in the Jordan: We call him Jesus.
There are multiple other parallels between the Old Testament (Judaism’s bible) and New Testament (Christian Bible), but standing on the banks of the Jordan River, with the Jordanian desert to the east and Jerusalem to the west, the Joshua - Jeshua connection was palpable.
Chuck and Lynna
Our hosts were gracious, fun, and beyond interesting. They are friends from home who had an unexpected free bedroom in their apartment for their month-long trip to Jerusalem. Chuck is not a religious person, but a serious scholar of history and humanity. Lynna is Jewish, non-practicing, and equally interesting and engaging. Not only were they gracious hosts and fun to be around, they introduced us to David Zwebner, our outstanding tour guide for our first full day.
David’s family is six generations in Jerusalem, his great-grandfather arriving in the mid-19th century and his grandchildren living nearby. David has made his way in life doing other interesting things (with a personal letter from Donald Trump to show for one of his interests), and does tour guides as a personal love. Monday was a firehose of information, beginning on the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, throughout the Old City with all its richness and variations, concluding at the U.S. Embassy. He led me respectfully to the Western Wall, discussed the confluence of religion and history with ease, and surprised us with his skill for avoiding crowds, while seeing Jerusalem’s most important sites. My favorite line from David was his birthday greeting: ‘On this day, God decided the world could not manage without you.’
Chuck and Lynna also arranged for Haim Karel to guide us east, out of Jerusalem: to Masada, En Gedi and the Dead Sea one day, and Herodium, Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls), the Inn of the Good Samaritan, the River Jordan and the Dead Sea (resort) on a second day. A valid metric, happened on two separate times and in two separate locations. While passing other larger groups, the tour-guides stopped to interrupt their own tours to remark, ‘Folks, meet Haim. Haim was my teacher. He is the best! You guys (meaning the four of us) are so lucky!’ They were right. Haim was as passionate about learning (sporting multiple languages and multiple degrees) as anyone I’ve known; entertaining, energetic, and generous with his tea and his container of dates and nuts.
A people person, he convinced an architectural archaeologist student working at Herodium to give us a lecture on the top elements of Herod the Great’s impressive palace and burial site, just by befriending him. Assaf’s best line, ‘A good visit is a done visit, so I have to get back to work.’
Jerusalem is rich and deep, not only on a religious basis, but ethnically and culturally as well. It sits at one end of the fertile crescent (Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, at the other) and people have been trading and passing through for millennia. Today Israel is playing a long game, trading increasingly with its closest neighbors Egypt and Jordan, inviting new Jewish citizens from around the world, while still requiring that all youth serve in the military or comparable defensive capacity: They live in a tough neighborhood where absence of war appears enough to get re-elected. Most people deeply want peace. May it be so.
We barely scratched the surface, but we scratched a lot and found a wonderful place. May peace prevail.