Slow down Jesus, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the good times last. Jesus was a busy little bee in his lifetime. It’s tough trying to keep up, especially when you only have a couple of days. Oh….and how come all the cool people die at 33? Like Jesus and Alexander The Great. That can be the question of the day! Up and out early and the first visit was the Temple Mount. You have to see things in this part of the world when the opportunity arrises as places open and close throughout the day and it’s hard to keep track of everybody’s hours. I mean preists etc have to eat and rest etc. Gee…nice work if you can get it. We never shut shop for lunch where I worked! The Temple Mount (aka Haram Ash-Sharif) is the Muslims’ domain and during the morning they’ll only let you visit between 08:00-10:00, so you really need to be there at 08:00 as it doesn’t take long for the queues of tourists to build and security checks slow things down a bit as well. This is a gorgeous, quiet courtyard area full of olive and cypress trees. There were a few little circles of men under trees studying their religious teachings and it’s hard to imagine such a peaceful little spot has been the centre of such dispute and upheaval. Why on earth all the religious heavy weights decided to do important things here is beyond me. Couldn’t they have spread themselves out a bit and save the world a whole lot of bother? It all comes down to a little bit of rock. It is this bit of rock that the Jews believe is the foundation stone of the world and Adam was created here. Then everyone (Adam, Cain, Abel, Noah and Abraham) all performed sacrifices here. Next Solomon decided it would be a nice spot for a temple and placed the Ark of the Covenant here. Even the Romans got in on the act and later built a temple to Zeus here. Then Mohammed had a go. He decided to teleport here from Mecca one night, said some prayers and teleported up to heaven. Seriously you guys, there’s a world outside your postcode. Maybe you should have done a bit more travelling abroad or something. The Israelis gave the site to the Muslims after the Six Day War. I mean they bulldozed their houses so I guess they had to give them something. It’s interesting because what I was told, is that The Dome of the Rock (you know, the building with the big shiny, gold dome) is only entered by Muslim women. The men are sent to the mosque (with the boring, silver dome). This is the real place of worship up here, with The Dome being more of a pretty building. The downside is that, as a tourist, they won’t let you in The Dome. Boo, muslims. They used to but it’s stopped in recent times. I think it’s a bit rough seeing that it’s important to a few faiths and everyone else (Jews, Christians) lets everyone into their sacred areas. Bit of trivia for the day: the big gold dome used to be actual gold, but someone needed to pay some debts so it all got melted down and the roof is now aluminium.
The complex also holds The Golden Gate. Again, this is out of bounds to everyone (you really need to learn to share, guys!) but is believed by the Jews to be the gate where the Messiah will enter Jerusalem.
Next it was time to leave the old city through the Jaffa Gate in the Jewish Quarter. I found a cab driver who I made a deal with to take me to Bethlehem and Masada for a bargain price. One bit of advice….the term, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” always rings true, and never more so than in Jerusalem. Whether it be hotel rooms or cab rides, never believe the deal the first time you here it. They’re thieves!! Anyway, the first part of the trip went well. The birthplace of Jesus is only about 10km away (thank you Mary and Joseph for not having Jesus on The Temple Mount!! At least they came up with an original place!). It’s strange to come to places like this as you have this image of a cosy little town set in the olden days, just like the pictures from your kiddies Bible or nativity scenes. The harsh reality is that is a modern, bustling little place and as dirty and up-to-date as any other town. The old section is quite a bit nicer, to be fair. It’s a town that’s been inhabited sins Palaeolithic times and nowadays has an 80% Christian Arab population. Being in the West Bank and out of Jerusalem, you have to pass a check point to get into the area. Here my cab driver took me into a shop where they gave me fresh orange juice and offered me the world plus a free guide (now I was thinking I’d paid way over the top to now be receiving such service!). The guide was actually pretty cool and we headed to the Church of the Nativity, which is believed to be the oldest continuously operating church in the world. Constantine’s mother Helena commissioned this church as well! She really did do a good job of ridding the place of Pagans. Approached from Manger Square, this old, stone building has three doors in one! You can see the outline of doors from different eras and they fit inside each other like those three coffee tables of descending size that your parents used to have. The smallest and one in use is The Door of Humility, built by the Ottomans. This is another Jesus site that’s been divvied up between the different Christian churches. Here the Franciscans get half the birth grotto and the Greek Orthodox get the other. The Greek Orthodox always get the best bits (like Calvary and here the manger and birth place). When I asked why, I was told it was because of their Byzantine background. They reckon they were here before everyone else. Fair enuff! There are so many important little places in the grotto under the church alone. The place where Mary and Joseph entered the grotto, the place where St Jerome translated the Bible from Greek to Latin, the place where Joseph had a dream where he was told to flee to Egypt, the tombs of the innocents who were killed by Herod and the place where Jesus was born and then the Manger. Breathe. The pinpoint accuracy of these most sacred of sites is more than incredible. I mean, I doubt if even Joseph could have remembered the exact spot he slept to within a millimetre, so how come everyone else knows? Anyway, Norbert didn’t mind. He was chuffed just to stand next to the manger site and have his photo taken, pretending he was one of those original Jesus-guarding sheep. We had to wait about half an hour to enter the Grotto of the Nativity as the Armenians were having a service. Everyone gets a turn all day, so it’s open, closed, open, closed ALL the time. Then a little monk has to run in and clean it before anyone can go in again. Talk about tedious! Next it was back to the shop where I got to try the Franciscan wine that they use at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Not a bad drop it was, either.
Next it was back in the cab (with my free falafel sandwich!) and onto the Herodian. This was a summer palace/fortress/monument/burial ground and district capital built by Herod just before BC turned into AD. The wonderful thing about this archaeological site is that chances are, you’ll be the only one here (just ignore the 5 other tourists for full effect!) It has an upper and lower level and they’ve found a mortuary building making them believe that Herod’s tomb is here, but they’re still excavating, so watch this space! The place has had a rich and dramatic history which I won’t go into (info overload!) and from her are brilliant views over the Judean Desert. My driver tried to convince me that you could see Beer Sheva from here (famous for the Australian Lighthorse charge that took place there), but I just can’t see how the little village a couple of kms away was the place that’s half way down the country when you look at a map.
Next it was back towards Jerusalem to head out to Masada. I thought things were sounding a bit dodgy when he was trying to give me other options rather than Masada to see. When I insisted on Masada, he decided that it would take too long and he needed more money. Grrrrrrr. He was to feel the full wrath of Rebecca. I gave him a serving, gave him half the amount he had agreed on, slammed the door and left. Seriously, a deal’s a deal. Anyway, I’d got a pretty good deal on what I’d seen already, so Masada is to be saved for tomorrow.
I then walked on to The Mount of Olives and this is another site jammed packed with stories. Its a steep walk to the top, but the views over the Old City are well worth it. This is the place where the Jews believe the Messiah will come and save them. Taking no chances, many choose to be buried here to be first in line. The site is amazing as 40% of the mount is covered in low tombs. It looks like some massacre has taken place here. I was told that a spot will set you back about USD25,000, or if you’re Robert Maxwell, USD25M. Supposedly I saw his grave, but it’s all in Hebrew so the bloke could have told me anything. I was chatting to a Palestinian bloke up here for about an hour and was trying to make sense of all the Jewish/Palistinian dividing lines. It’s quite confusing so I’ll try to explain. The Arab areas are basically The West Bank and Gaza. With Jerusalem, the east part is the old city and the west part is Israeli. However, if you are an Arab and were born here, you’re allowed to be here. You have to have a special identification card (of which he showed me) which basically gives you the freedom to go anywhere. That’s why there’s checkpoints all overt the country, to check peoples id etc. He said that the Arabs really don’t have a problem with the Jews born in Israel etc, the problem arrises when the Jewish people just waltz in from other countries and are just given houses snatched off the Arabs. Just like that. Every Friday houses get distributed and you get some small demonstrations as a result (if I understood him correctly. Don’t actually quote me on any of this stuff!!) They also love the tourists. And I can vouch for that. Out of all the people I’ve come across, the Arabs have been the most welcoming and helpful. They’ll go out of their way to help or give you directions. With a lot of their sources of income having been taken away from them, tourism is really all they have, so they’re not about to go and scare off their source of income. I really noticed this in Bethlehem (a Palestinian area). The people were gentle, kind and gracious. I also think it’s way too easy to mistake the state or fundamentalist view to that of the man in the street. Most people in the world just want to get along, earn a dollar and keep their families safe. The big security walls around the different settlements though are nonetheless a little off-putting. Either way, I think it’s just best to see the person in front of you, no matter their creed, and leave all the labels for someone else.
Anyway…back to the sites! I had had the chin wag as, yet again, most of the sites here had been closed for lunch or whatever they get up to. It was now about 15:00 and time to wander back down the Mount of Olives along the route they use for Palm Sunday. Jesus did a lot of things in this place. It was his first stop after fasting for 40 days and 40 nights, he entered here before his condemnation,he wept for Jerusalem here, he hung out here before his death and then he chatted to his prophets here. I think it was one of his favourite hangs. My first stop was the Church of the Paster Noster. This is supposedly where Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer (woops….I forgot that one!). Today it is written on big tiles in 100 different languages. I took photos from the outside as you had to pay to go on. Yes, I’m tight. Next was the Church of Dominus Flevit. This is my favourite little church to date. Plain and unassuming, it has a pretty design and lovely views to the Old City through its understated window. This is where Jesus supposedly wept for Jerusalem. Next it was done to the Tomb of the Virgin Mary. This is a dull little cave-like place, but you’d be forgiven in thinking that you had entered a lighting shop what with all the chandeliers and lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Positively hundreds!!!!! Yep…thoses Greeks have been at it again! Here you enter what seems to be a cute little purpose-built grotto where Mary is supposed to have been burried. I actually prefer Mary Magdalene, bless her cotton socks. She has more conspiracy attached to her and hidden stories. Anyway, next it was time for another “Rebecca doesn’t know what she’s doing” ritual. There was a big icon behind the tomb on which lent a little icon. I think you were supposed to kiss the little one and touch the big one. I just went up and had a bit of a nosey around. The throng below must think me quite strange. But I mean, how are you supposed to know what to do? Do you learn that at Catholic School or something? Anyway, for religious and supposedly spiritual folk, they’re all darn pushy. I just push back or stand there staring at them like the village idiot. It seems to unnerve them somewhat, which I take as a kind of victory. I’ve started to make a bit of a game of it. There’s all these other little shrines too. How are you supposed to know who they’re all for? Anyway, if nothing else, I get away with wearing my silly scarves around my head to keep the sun off. I’m sure they just think that I’m being all pious or something!
Next door is Gethsemene (I have oh such problems pronouncing that word!). This is a nice little olive grove where Jesus supposedly hung out with his disciples before he died. It’s a lovely little spot and some of the olive trees have been dated at being over 2000 years old (and to be fair, you just have to look at them to figure that this is probably true), so they very well could have witnessed Jesus’ arrest. Inside the basilica is another “X marks the spot” slab of stone.
That was the Mount of Olives covered so it was now time to cross the small Kidron Valley back towards the Old City. This little area has a great story attached to it. Basically, in the future, this is where all the action will happen. On the day of judgement, God will sit where The Dome of the Rock is (unoriginal, God!!) and everyone will line up on the Mount of Olives. A steel bridge and a paper bridge will span across this valley connecting the two mounts and everyone will be marched across. Just a tip….the steel bridge is going to collapse and you’ll go to hell, so make sure you jump on the paper one. Don’t say I didn’t tell you! This valley also contains the tombs belonging to David’s son and that of Zachariah.
Next it was around to the old City of David, which is located just west of the Old City wall. This is the oldest part of Jerusalem and was a Canaanite settlement captured by King David about 3000 years ago. It’s still possible to walk around some of the ruins, but most of the city is under modern dwellings. The most significant of the excavations are the Hezekiah’s Tunnel and Warren’s Shaft which lead to the Pool of Siloan and the Spring of Gihon consecutively, both water supplies to the city. The former pool is famous for being the place where Jesus told a blind man to wash his face and he was healed. It was a pretty long walk on a hot day, but worth the effort. Next it was back into the Old City, entering at Dung Gate near the Western Wall, and I found the place crawling with young ( and not at all ugly!) young soldiers. From what I could find out, it was oath-swearing day or something. I’ve never seen sooooooo many M16 assault rifles. Everywhere. And not just on the soldiers, but tables full of them. Those and Torahs (at a guess) and I can only assume that you get sworn in and receive a gun and a Torah. Nothing like a bit of hypocrisy! Anyway, I wasn’t about to hang around to find out as my feet had really had enough and were demanding I take them home.