A priest waits on the steps of Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary in Jerusalem Israel - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
A priest waits on the steps of Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary in Jerusalem Israel – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – http://www.MissMaps.com

Four Quarters.
I imagined them divided by a great wall, cutting the square Old City into four equal parts.
I’d heard the Temple Mount was the center of Old Town Jerusalem and had pictured this mosque to be raised high upon the walls, which visitors would have to walk atop in order to catch a glimpse of life below. I imagined hateful disputes between each quarter with no way to pass from one to another, and no way for visitors to enter. I imagined seeing all from above, as if a bird caught in a tree: all eyes, all ears, but no way to become one with the world below.
Old City is nothing like what I imagined.

For our first trip into the Old City, we entered Jaffa Gate on Christmas Day and were immediately greeted by men assuring us that because we were visiting during Shabbat, there would be no free tours. Instead, they insisted, we should trust one of these fine gentlemen to lead us through the Old City.
Keep walking.
Past currency exchanges, a well-stocked well-staffed visitors center, and toward a narrow walkway of gradual steps leading past stands smelling of incense and cumin. Past men, women and children offering ‘a look’ at their stores.

“Come have a look”
“Lady you want necklace? Earrings?
“Discount!”
“Looking is free!”

Avoiding too much interaction at the risk of being swept away by some ‘must have’ cap or postcard, we met many markets with the same downward turned eyes, “La, la”s (“No, no” in Arabic) and smells of spices and incense filling our senses. Turn after turn led us through the maze of streets. Every few minutes, we happened upon secret passages leading to another area or site, away from bright reds greens yellows and blues of the tourist trap lanes.

 

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In the Christian Quarters, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was our first big find, a steeple towering above surrounding dusty stone buildings. Its courtyard was filled with visitors from all walks of life, many of them led by tour guides (because yes, tours do still occur during Shabbat despite what men at the gates had said). Inside the church, we witnessed many women kneeling at a long rectangular stone, their palms firmly planted on the rock and some of them bowing to place her forehead or lips on the stone.

The stone is The Stone of the Anointing, in memory of the preparation of Jesus’s body for burying. Farther inside the church a small building was encri with a of mass visitors, festively reminding us of this Christmas Day, dressed in Santa hats and forming a line around the ornate stand’s perimeter as a black-cloaked priest directed each to enter two-by-two. This space is the aedicula, a small area which holds an alter and farther in, another slate of tan and brick red stone. Here is where the tomb of Jesus lies.

Nearby, an organist played from a second story balcony and as we kneeled to pay our respects to the stone and its stories, music drifted through the doorway to meet our ears. After exiting and finding a bench on which to sit, we stayed still for several minutes in this dark space made light only by flickering candles hanging from sky high ceilings, enjoying majestic music filling an otherwise silent room.

 

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Once again outside the church, we wove our way to the Jewish Quarter with yamakas sold for two euro, decorated in your choice of the more traditional blue and white stripes or the flashy logos of America’s favorite NBA logos. Below the Jewish Quarters, a security check allowed us to enter into the Western Wall area. Here, men and women are separated by a fence, each able to walk to the high wall for purposeful prayers and to leave a written wish folded into its gaps and gorges. Ben and I both entered on the appropriate sides, and after standing at the wall for many moments, I nearly turned to leave. It was then that I realized you do not turn your back on the Western Wall, but instead walk backwards the entire length of the yard, as turning one’s back on the wall is considered disrespectful.

During one visit, as there were several during our stay, two young women dressed in long black skirts and sweaters with a wrap covering her hair approached us with an offering of kindness – a chewy treat for Ben and one for me as well. It wasn’t the first or last time in Jerusalem when we were offered goodies by strangers. Another time as we were finding dinner near our apartment in the German Colony, two girls handed me a small bag of homemade pink and blue meringues adorned with a sticker spelling out “Free Love” in Hebrew. It now decorates my computer so it can spread the Free Love to whomever else sees it and happens to read Hebrew.

Back in Old Town Jerusalem, we went south from the Western Wall and it huge accompanying plaza to the Temple Mount security checkpoint. Limited entrance hours during winter for three hours in the morning and then again for one hour in the afternoon cause lines with more visitors than time allows. We managed to pass through this second security check and up a sloped ramp into Temple Mount by 1:23pm, leaving us a grand total of seven minutes to scurry over to the golden dome, gawk at brilliant mosaics in mixes of turquoise and periwinkle blue, and dodge security guards ushering guests to the exit so the day’s prayers could continue in privacy.  After a few minutes of no longer seeing other Westerners, we gave up views of neighboring Mount of Olives and the more distant haze of Bethlehem’s hills and followed others out a gated archway leading back to the Old City.

 

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From there we walked along Via Dolorosa, pausing to eavesdrop on stories told by tour guides of the stations along Jesus’s final route, to the exit where a desolate cemetery sits filled with crumbling tombs and rough soil strewn with broken cement. A flat area let us take in the view of Mount of Olives 150,000+ gravestones turning the same golden hue as the neighboring Church of Mary Magdalene’s spectacular domed roofs. From where we stood in the shade of Jerusalem’s wall amongst recklessly abandoned tombs, looking across to rectangular arrangements of the most honorable burial grounds shining in the sun, the contrast of cultures we’d experienced in and around the Old City left us with no words.

Old City Jerusalem is not the place of high walls and extreme separation or hatred I’d previously imagined. The variations of culture and religion are evident, but at the same time there is a cohesive lifestyle that unites different backgrounds and allows everyone to live together amongst blends of incense, spices and plenty of souvenirs.

 

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5 Comments

  1. Awesome pics! I pinned the first one =) But I think you should upload to the latest version or something cause the websites from my googlechrome looks weird, i suggest you to fix it when you have time =) Sending a lot of love and trying to help from a travel blogger too ❤

    Like

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