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Shabbat and the Old City

On Friday morning I woke and trotted off to the gym. Little did I know, but being the day of Shabbat, Israel tends to run on a different time, and despite my enthusiasm, I was too early for the gym and was forced to go for another run around the city. If I knew how much walking I would have to do further in the day, I might have foregone the running option.

Leaving our hotel, we – the New Zealand group of educators – were introduced to our guide for the day. Our guide, Amir is an archaeologist from the Hebrew University with a plethora of knowledge and dad jokes that he spreads throughout his commentaries with great gusto (Why do archaeologists need counselling? Because their lives are in ruins.).

It was Amir’s job to oversee us for the next two days and introduce us to the historical side of Israel. First up was a trip to the Old City, past the Lions and Golden Gates, through to our entrance, the stunningly named Dung Gate. On the way past the Golden Gate, we got our first look across the Kidron Valley (Valley of Jehosafat) to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. Next to these significant Christian landmarks is sited the oldest Jewish cemetery on Earth. Jewish tradition states that in the Final Judgement, the people buried here will be the first raised to new life, effectively giving them all a front row seat to the dawning of the New Jerusalem.

Looking out from the Old City to the Mount of Olives and the oldest Jewish cemetery.

From the Dung Gate, we side stepped the numerous Hasidic Jews begging for coin, and entered into the Ophel Archaeological Park. The park itself sits south and south-west of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and is a live site, meaning that parts of it are still being explored. So far the site has managed to unearth the remnants of the Temple Mount, dating back to the period of the Second Temple, 530BCE – 70CE.

The place is incredible and the depth of the digging to reveal the ancient stones is extensive. Here, with some imagination (helped in part by a range of videos, sketches, and photographs), one can imagine how the city must have looked and felt around the time of Jesus. One of the more special aspects of the park are the steps that reach towards the Al-Asqa Mosque. These steps are the original steps that Jewish people walked upon when taking sacrifices up to the temple. They are also the place where Jesus himself would have walked during his time in Jerusalem. Indeed, so significant are these ruins that Neil Armstrong, while touring the Park in 2007, said to his tour guide, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”

The original stairs of the temple during the Second Temple Period, the same stairs that Jesus would have used.

Viewing the Al-Asqa Mosque from the archaeological park.

From the park, we walked up and around to the most spiritual place for modern Judaism, the Wailing Wall. This part of the exposed brick work of the original Temple Mount is the last link that the Jewish People have to the Great Temple which housed their Holy of Holies. Here, thousands of Jews and Christians gather to pray and seek intercession from God. On the day we visited, the Muslims were having their big prayer services up at the Al-Asqa Mosque and there were riot police wandering around in a heightened state of tension. Apparently, the Muslims can sometimes get a bit worked up and begin throw stones off the Temple Mount down onto the Jewish people praying below. At that point, the riot police have to run up a causeway into the Muslim zone of control to contain the violence. It is a job that is fraught with danger and the Israeli authorities do not take any chances. Just as the call to prayer began to ring out, our tour guide and armed guard decided that for safety reasons, they would escort us out of there and into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

Israeli riot police prepare for any outcomes at the Wailing Wall.

Getting spiritual at the Wailing Wall.

To cut a long story short, we then spent the afternoon wandering through the stalls, ancient streets and building of the Old City, learning about how the city may have looked and functioned two centuries ago. After a proper tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where I finally got to learn what all the rooms I had previously visited were), my mate Pete and I ambled back to the city and through the markets to pick up some snacks. Now if you haven’t had the privilege of visiting a Middle Eastern market, then you should put it on your bucket list.

The entrance to the markets – insanity at its finest, a treat not to be missed!

The markets are action packed avenues of every imaginable nut, candy, piece of clothing, and odds and ends. Muslim, Christian, Jew, and tourist all jostle and bump as they navigate the throngs to argue with the store owners and try to secure the best dollar for their products.

The process of securing the best price for their product is an art in itself. Store owners go through a range of emotions in their attempts to sell produce. Initially they are extremely positive, insisting that their *name of produce* is the best in all of Jerusalem. On naming a low price, they then look almost insulted, before reminding you that they need to feed their families and that they couldn’t possibly part with their item for that price. A brief exchange then follows with the shopkeeper parrying away lower prices while thrusting pricier options under your nose. While this is all going on, there are arms waving, dramatic posturing and gesturing, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and emphatic points of order. From a social perspective, it is literally something that requires an overdub of David Attenborough…

“And here we have the Armenian store keeper attempting to sell a Christian Cross to an unsuspecting American tourist. Note how the Armenian assumes a lower stance than the tourist, a cleaver trick designed to make the tourist think that they have the upper hand; meanwhile, the store keeper knows that they have forty other identical blessed-by-the-Pope rosary beads and that with the tourist reaching for their wallet, a sale is guaranteed.”

Following the markets, we rushed back to the hotel just in time to ensure we were ready for the Shabbat.

In the Jewish faith, the new day starts at Dusk in the early evening, and the celebration of Shabbat begins in earnest when three stars become visible in the night sky. Once dressed, the group headed out onto the nearly empty streets – Jews are forbidden from creative work during Shabbat and driving is included in this – and walked to the local synagogue. Here I was treated to what can best be described as organised chaos. The actual service follows a very strict schedule, but it is what goes on around that schedule that is the fun part of participating in a Jewish service. Men wander around, shaking hands and making plans on the sly. People bob up and down to the rhythm of the Hebrew prayers giving the congregation the impression of a slow motion mosh pit. Men eagerly sing jaunty tunes while the odd man ad-libs with clapping and scat and children run around like there is nothing going on.

Showing off my colour coordinated ensemble for the service at the synagogue. Note how the kippah more than hides my bald patch!

At the conclusion of the service, there is a lot of catching up between men and women (who sit separately from the men during the service), before everyone rushes off to dinner. Now meals over the Shabbat period have to be all pre-prepared as people are not allowed to work. So when we got to the hotel, we sat down for a series of Jewish prayers and blessings before we got stuck into the richness of the Jewish religious foods. Must haves here are the gefilte fish and the chopped chicken liver. I won’t go into detail here, but these two food are completely in the realms of the love or hate relationship. I for one had no problem with them, but I am firmly of the belief that if it breathes, then it is edible. Unfortunately, the gag reflexes of some of my colleagues indicated that my approval of the Jewish customary foods was not shared by all. Yet, after a long and tiresome day, with a few beers to wash down the pulped fish and chicken livers, I went to bed suitably full and happy.