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2013 Grateful 6

Described as the Holy of Holies from which the Divine Presence never moves, the Western Wall in Jerusalem was high on my list of places to see in the city. I’d been warned by an Hungarian to take extra care when composing my letter to God as whatever I asked for would be granted. And for the days leading up the visit, this ask played on my mind.

IMG_8353 (800x591)A holy place of prayer for Jews for centuries, in December 1947, after some bloody incidents with the Arabs, they were no longer allowed to approach the Wall. When the  Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell in May 1948, it would be another 9 years before they could even look at the wall from a distance. It wasn’t until the third day of the Six-Day war (7 June 1967) that Israel’s parachutists broke through the ‘bloody gate’ which the mufti had opened and liberated the wall. Later buildings were levelled and an area cleared in front of the wall for praying. I can’t quite figure out what the rocking is about – that back and forth movement of the upper body – but add it to the singing and I finally get why it has been known for eons as the wailing wall.

IMG_8282 (800x600)Today, men and women are segregated, each having their own side of the wall at which to pray. The touch of millions of hands and foreheads has polished the stone in places and no two pieces look alike. Every crack and fissure in the wall up to human height is home to pieces of paper containing the prayers of the faithful, a living testimony to faith, hope, and belief.

IMG_8269 (800x600)Nearby, sits the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Destroyed twice by earthquakes, once in 746 and again in 1033, and damaged severely in the quakes of 1927 and 1937, the building is still as imposing as ever. Said to be the point from which Muhammad travelled to from Mecca and from whence he departed for heaven.

IMG_8357 (800x593)In the distance sits the Golden Dome, considered ‘the most contested piece of real estate’ in the world. I think though that that refers to the foundation stone it houses rather than the dome itself… but I’ve been known to be wrong. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all view it as significant – which, in my little mind, would go some way towards confirming what I’ve always believed – there is one God who goes by different names.

This week, as the memories of my trip to the Holy Land remain bright and clear, I’m grateful for my bucket list – for that innate curiosity that makes me want to pack a bag and travel. And I’m even more grateful that I have the wherewithal to do so.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

 

Fifty shades of … brown

It took a while for me to put my finger on what I was missing most – and then it finally dawned on me. Colour. The Judean Desert is practically devoid of colour. Jerusalem is built from the same brick – every building made from the same type of stone. Even old monasteries like St George of Koziba, which is located somewhere off the side of the road on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, are of the same cast (and yes,  the road you see also features in the tale of the good Samaritan).

IMG_8063 (800x600)Built as it into the side of a mountain, it reminded me, somewhat bizarrely, of Popeye’s village in Malta. I think perhaps the heat was getting to me. Anyway, back in 614, the Persians passed through, killing the 14 monks who lived there. The Crusaders had a brief relationship with the place in the 1100s but it wasn’t until 1901 that  a Greek monk finished the restoration. And it was here, apparently that St Joachim wept when an angel told him that Mary had conceived.

IMG_8067 (600x800)The place is spectacular. Simply amazing. It wouldn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to envision Elijah in a cave nearby being fed by the ravens – which apparently is what drew the monks here in the first place. Accessible by foot, it’s open to visitors, who amongst many other things, can have a peak at the remains of the 14 massacred monks. We contented ourselves with a view across the gorge of the Wadi Qelt, lost in the majesty of it all. I think it’s one of those places better appreciated from afar (and I, for one, was glad we didn’t make 2 hour trek to the front door).

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Geographically challenged

Yesterday, I thought I was heading to Israel. This morning I woke up in Palestine. Perhaps I should have read the itinerary more carefully. Or perhaps not. When asked at immigration what my plans were, I said that I was going to Tel Aviv and then to Jerusalem. That I was meeting up with a scout group from Serbia and Macedonia (turns out there are six countries on this trip). And that no, I didn’t have any friends or family in Israel. Two out of three ain’t bad I suppose.

Waiting to be identified at the airport, I didn’t feel any anxiety despite my lack of preparedness. As each passenger on my flight made their way towards the exit, I stood centre concourse with by bag wondering what I’d do if nobody showed. I still thought I was staying in Tel Aviv. Not for the first time I marvelled at how easily I abdicate responsibility when someone else takes charge. If I don’t have to make decisions, I switch off completely.

http://jewfondue.blogspot.com/

http://jewfondue.blogspot.com/

On the drive to the wall (the military structure that separates Israel from Palestine on the outskirts of Bethlehem) we passed many Hasidic Jews (not at all strange really, considering we were in Israel). They wear their hats set back on their heads, showing lots of forehead. Black suits and dark shirts made it feel as if we were on the set of a black and white movie and the a fleeting notion black-and-white approaches snagged somewhere in my brain. There seemed to be mainly men, many of whom were pushing prams. Young boys, teens, older men … pushing prams. I’m not sure why that struck me as odd…but it did.

The first twinges of embarrassment at my complete ignorance of the geopolitical situation in the region started to make themselves felt when Serge began to explain to me about the Green Line: the demarcation lines set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbours after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and also used to mark the line between Israel and the territories captured in the Six-Day War, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula (the last has since been returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty). The name derives from the green ink used to draw the line on the map while the talks were going on.

The plan was that we would take a shuttle (one of the many mini-buses that ferry passengers to Jerusalem from the airport at Tel Aviv) to the line and then use one of the enterprising local drivers to ferry us through the checkpoint into Bethlehem. Each trip nets the company $200 although the drivers themselves, working 16-hour days might net $1300 in a month. Despite this, our chap was well happy and constantly laughing and smiling. When the ten well-travelled bodies in his van began to hum, he passed around a sprig of basil. A natural air freshener that I have made note to try.

When we arrived at the wall, I was glad I had company. We were five in all so the Macedonians (having waited for me at the airport for two hours) went in the first car. The driver was supposed to come back for us … but didn’t. As we waited on the side of the litter-strewn road in the shadow of the wall I was itching to take some photos but was advised not to. They’re serious about their military installations.

Eventually we walked through. We met old-fashioned steel turnstiles and a maze of cage-like passageways lined with high railings. Stumbling over uneven pathways I was grateful yet again that I wasn’t on my own. Even if it was Serge’s first time in 15 years make the crossing on foot, at least he could speak the language. The passageway opened into a cul-de-sac where half a dozen yellow cabs stood waiting. The drivers greeted us like old friends asking where we’d come from. Judging by their enthusiasm, Ireland is popular in Palestine. A couple who had seen us waiting on the other side approached and asked if they could be of help; they thought we were trying to go to Israel and had turned back. They offered to drive us to our hotel. I couldn’t help but be impressed at the genuine warmth of the welcome and the constant smiles of the people. It was like old home week. One of the drivers told me that John Carey was also expected to pass through later …

IMG_7633 (800x600)IMG_7634 (800x600)At the hotel, having checked in, had a beer with some of the others, and Skyped home, I ventured out to my balcony to check the view. Not quite what I’d expected. It seems that inside is more important than outside when it comes to aesthetics in this part of the world – the view mightn’t be much but the hotel itself is lovely.

As Day 1 of the journey dawns, breakfast beckons and suitably attired for what they’re calling a ‘church day’, I’m ready to see more of Bethlehem and what it might offer.

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