Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dome of the Rock

The final stop on our Trifecta Tour of the Old City
was the Dome of the Rock, one of the three holiest sites in Islam.  The rock in question is the rock that Abraham
laid Isaac upon as he Coke bottleprepared to sacrifice him, and it’s the same rock from
which the Prophet Muhammad stepped off of as he ascended into heaven.  That’s a pretty righteous rock, maybe even a
little self-righteous.  Apparently the
rock wanted so badly to follow the prophet into heaven that Muhammad had to
press it back with his foot, leaving a deep footprint in the stone.  Muhammad got a pass into heaven and all it got was a gilded dome.  Incidentally, the gold for the dome is rumored to have been provided by King Hussein of Jordan, who sold one of his New York City properties to pay for it. 

I wanted so badly to see this alleged
footprint but unfortunately you’ve got to be a Muslim male to go inside.   Instead, we wandered around the plaza outside, where little
kids played soccer, women strolled around in burkas, and one woman conned my
father-in-law into paying her for snapping a photo of him.  I
was taken aback to see weeds growing on the grounds and even litter lying
  The whole place had a somber, uneasy feel and I was
glad to leave. 

Arab quarter
I suspect they were glad to have me leave too, not just the
temple mount where the Dome of the Rock is, but I think they’d like me and my
kind to leave the entire country. Or at least just leave them alone.  The stark contrast in atmosphere between the Jewish
celebrations going on at the Western Wall at the base of the temple mount and
the stultifying atmosphere and oppressive heat at the top by the Dome of the
Rock are a microcosm of the status of the whole country—separate and

Nazareth SuburbsThe Arab neighborhoods we
walked through to get to the Old
were as run down as
any photograph from the third world I’d ever seen.  The photo above was taken just outside Nazareth, one of the more developed and prosperous Arab cities.  Apparently there are laws that prevent even
Arabs with the means from developing the land they own.  Meanwhile the Jewish neighborhoods were plush,
suburban and decidedly western.  Perhaps
that difference explains the barbed wire and shards of glass lining this fence in the Old City...  Shards

As anyone who grew up in the South in the ’50s and 60’s could
tell you, there’s nothing like a double standard to create a little
uprising.  I
won’t pretend to have all the answers, but it seems to me if you want peace in
the Middle East you might start with creating some peace in the middle of Jerusalem.  Until then, you’ll have to keep an eye out
for signs like this: 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Boxed Out

The next stop on my Jerusalem Trifecta tour was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the sight most Christians believe is where Jesus was crucified.  This site is the culmination of most Christian pilgrimages, but what struck me most about the place was the crowds.  The church was packed, and I couldn’t find anyplace to sit and contemplate the significance of the place.  So instead I got in the line to see the fancy stone box where Jesus’ remains are said to To be<br />a pilgrimlie—something I didn’t quite understand since I was taught that Jesus ascended into heaven after his resurrection, so there shouldn’t be any remains to put in a box. 

Nevertheless, I got in line to see this box, and was immediately inundated with Russians who started cutting in front of me in line.  A couple of them got in front of me then they kept trying to bring the rest of their companions up to join them, reaching back, motioning to them, whispering things that sounded like missile codes, etc.    I had to hip check one old woman who tried to sneak by me. 

Me and the russians As we got close to the stone box, the Russians started singing, and there was one priest immediately behind me that was very loud and very afflicted with halitosis,  so I was relieved to finally get inside to see the stone box.  Unfortunately, I had to share my time there with three other Russians, who proceeded to scatter icons and trinkets across the top, kneel down and start praying.  I was boxed out, and before I got a chance to inspect the box I was called out by the usher. 

I felt boxed out about a lot of the other biblical sights we visited in Israel too.   All the significant sites seem to have a church built on them.  For example, the well in Nazareth where Mary was told she would bear the Son of God was housed in two churches, one built on top of another.  The well itself was nothing more than a pipe with some water gushing out.  The engineer in me estimated it was flowing at about one cfs, or Golgothacubic feet per second, and the MBA in me estimated there was about $34 in US and other currencies at the bottom of the well.   Meanwhile the Christian in me had a difficult time envisioning the what had occurred there because I’m certain the Angel didn’t speak to Mary in the basement of a dingy old church.  I would have rather seen an actual well, in the open air, with the city surrounding it. 

I think that explains why so many Christians like visiting the Garden Tomb, another site where Jesus may have been crucified and laid to rest.  They haven’t built a church on it (but there is one nearby) so you can walk the grounds and see for yourself where Joseph of Arimathaea might have walked to get the body and take it to the tomb.  I didn’t even mind looking over the bus station between the edge of the garden and the hill that might be Golgotha.  It even kinda sorta resembles a skull, aside from the TV antenna at the top. 

 DSCN2054Finally, I snapped this photo outside the church built on the Garden of Gethsemane.  While it’s likely they put the sign up to preserve the peace and quiet inside the church, I think a lot of Christians feel this is official church policy when it comes to some of life’s more difficult questions.  Maybe the sign is meant to keep skeptics, cynics and intellectuals boxed out.  

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Western Wall

I’ve been home from my pilgrimage long enough to distill my
impressions of what I saw in Israel, to race my mountain bike a couple of
times, and to get over the bug I brought home in my small intestine.  To be very frank, I didn’t have a solid stool
for over a week, even though I drank nothing but bottled water (and minty
lemonade).  I blame it on the poor hygiene
standards of the street food vendors who sell the best made-to-order falafel in
the world. 

Gentile and JewsSpending a week in Israel after a week in Spain is like
washing down your milk with a shot of hot sauce—I did it backwards.  We went from the slow, humane pace of bicycle
touring to the furious and frenetic pace of traffic in Tel Aviv.  But with a little luck and perhaps a bit of
Providence these pilgrims made it to the Old City of Jerusalem.   

I wasted no time in setting out for the Trifecta of holy
sites of the Abrahamic religions.  First
up was the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, in spite of the fact that
the wall is nothing more than a retaining wall, which is emblematic of my
impression of the Jews there—very practical and very casual.  They had yarmulkes available for Gentiles and
forgetful Jews to cover their heads with in order that the fear of heaven  might
be upon me as I approached the wall. 
What struck me most about stepping up to that wall was not the little
notes to God stuck in the cracks between every block, nor was it the intensity
with which the Orthodox men prayed, and swayed at the wall—which reminded me of
the Spinners, or members of the Church of Unlimited Devotion, who used to spin
and sway at Grateful Dead concerts.  Western wall

 What struck me most was the casual attitude with which these
people behaved in a place they consider so holy.  I saw men snapping photos of toddlers
fumbling against the wall, other men took video of some of the swaying orthodox,
another young orthodox man was asked by a secular man to take his photo at the
wall.  Then there were the bar mitzvahs,
about five of which were going on the day I was there.  There was singing, dancing, praying going on
everywhere, and women, who have their own Candyseparate section at the Wall, threw
candy over the fence at all the children on the men’s side.  Meanwhile, there were young Israeli defense forces toting machine guns everywhere, reminding everybody how tenuous the Jewish presence in Jerusalem is.  There was no judgment of who was holier than
whom, everybody was accepted, and everybody seemed comfortable in their own
skin.  They didn't care that a Gentile like me was standing next to them listening and taking photographs.  I couldn’t imagine some of the
holy places back home ever having such a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere.   M-16s

I liked the Western Wall so much we visited
it twice.