Day 2: On to Jerusalem

After a good night’s sleep, we come down to breakfast and spread our jam on a sort of large crispy wafer. We learn one can only eat unleavened bread on Shabbat, and so after this involuntary kosher breakfast we head to Jerusalem. The scenery starts with flat irrigated fields and as we approach Jerusalem it becomes much hillier with cypress forests and vineyards.

Our first stop is on the Mount of the Olives with its panoramic view of the old town, its golden dome and famous church steeples. Samir offloads us a few hundred metres before the viewpoint as the traffic is already crazy with big coaches trying to force a passage through the winding streets of Jerusalem East, the Muslim area.  We descend the hill past the Jewish cemetery, mingling with countless groups from all over the Christian world… Slavs, Filipinos, Ethiopians, Greeks… it’s quite amazing, and everyone converges at the bottom of the hill in the Gethsemane Basilica, ornate with beautiful mosaics. The gardens are filled with olive trees, some of which are more than 2000 years old, and so have been witness to all of the major events in Jerusalem since before the birth of Christ.

On the Mount of Olives overlooking Old Jerusalem

Samir was pretty vague about where to pick us up, and as his van looks like every other tourist taxi we stand on the street corner for a half-hour peering into every car that drives by hoping to recognize him. Matters aren’t helped by that fact that about three-quarters of all vehicles are white: whether it is to beat the heat or simply the cheapest colour we aren’t sure. He eventually shows up and then drives us around the perimeter of old walled Jerusalem. The traffic is dense, there is a heavy armed police presence and it’s interesting to watch the Orthodox Jews on one side of the road and the Muslims on the other, with their wildly different dress code. Samir slogs it out through the traffic, explaining that he wants to drop us off at the Jaffa gate “to make our life easier” and have less walking to do. Unbeknownst to him (and us) just as he drives away we discover the Jaffa Gate is closed to entry, for unexplained reasons. The police direct us to the next gate around the wall, the Zion gate. So we skirt the walls of old Jerusalem, only to discover that the Zion gate is also closed.  We have to push on to the Dung Gate, a full quarter way round the entire city. Fortuitously however, while looking for a shortcut to the Dung Gate through Mount Zion we stumble upon the room of the Last Supper and King David’s tomb.

The mosaics of the Gethsemame Basilica

Finally we reach the Dung Gate, and we manage to enter the old city. Surprisingly considering the enormous crowds within the walls, we make it through the security check pretty quickly, and emerge at the foot of the Wailing Wall. We don’t realize immediately that (along with fluffy bread) photos are also forbidden on the Shabbat. Skye and Ryo each don a Yarmulke to enter the sacred area and touch the famous wall. Inspired, Ryo starts wailing that he is hungry, so we enter the narrow lanes of the Muslim quarter and don’t put up any resistance when a little Arab pops out of a vaulted restaurant and grabs us by the arm with the lure of shawarma. 200 Shekels is definitely a tourist trap bill, but at least the lamb and chicken shawarma and falafel is tasty.

Ready to pay our respects to the Wailing Wall

Feeling restored, we continue our walk through the tortuous alleys of the Muslim quarter. It’s very lively and has a typical souk atmosphere. We make our way up a dark alley chock full of Muslim tea rooms and sweet shops but are stopped in our tracks by armed guards as the alley leads to the Al Aqsa Mosque grounds where infidels are forbidden. So we turn back and head for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but it seems the Christian sites are almost as unreachable. Hordes of Christian pilgrims armed with thick bunches of taper candles are stopped by police roadblocks in every alley as they try to approach the church. We learn later that this is because of the sheer volume of people here for Easter. Ryo and Sandra start to feel crowed and oppressed… kind of like Varanasi in India but without the burning bodies. Unlike Skye who can see over people’s heads, being small and immersed in a solid crowd of worshippers squeezed in tiny alleyways is really daunting… you have to be a true believer to tolerate it, but Ryo and Sandra are not transported by their faith and simply want out.

Following the Via Dolorosa and the stations of the Cross

Skye manages to lead the family through throngs of humanity to the Jaffa Gate where an impressive phalanx of police and soldiers direct people out of the old town towards the exit. Mom and son take refuge in the sunny courtyard of an old hotel on a quiet alley and Skye decides to resume his quest for the Holy Sepulchre. After winding his way through dozens of alleyways, to his surprise he emerges at the site and is sucked into the church with the throngs of worshippers. With his feet barely touching ground he sways with the fervour of the crowds inside the dark church, chanting and brandishing flaming torches. Conscious of the need to get back to our driver on time, and unsure of how to leave he spies a small group of young priests forcing themselves upstream against the tide of humanity and quickly follows in their wake. He emerges into daylight just in time to navigate back through the labyrinth of alleys, pick up the family at the hotel, and head to the meeting point with Samir at the Jaffa Gate. The traffic is total fauda (chaos), and Samir wisely parked a few streets away letting us get out of town pretty quickly.

Christian faithful with their flaming tapers

He then takes us back up Mount of the Olives to our hotel. While the view of the old town is nice, the building is 1970’s ugly and the lobby is uninviting. But our rooms have been recently renovated so it’s not bad. Ryo, after realizing there is wifi only in the common areas, is determined to go straight to the lounge where he settles down with his tablet to watch bloopers on YouTube. Skye can’t find anyone at the restaurant or the bar and has to visit the reception to ask how to get our fix. Some old guys pops out of who knows where and sets us up with a couple of beers and a Coke for Ryo. As the sun sets on old Jerusalem, we head for the dinner buffet but aren’t keen on sitting in the big dining room full of tour groups from China, Ivory Coast and other exotic places. The bistro next door is completely empty and the kindly waiter says “hey, you sit here, you sit there, where you like, no problem!” and so we enjoy a very quiet meal all by ourselves.

A divine sunbeam illuminates the Holy Sepulchre

Our blog is calling, but in order to post it we have to return to the lounge area. It’s packed with the Ivory Coast delegation who seem to be monopolizing the internet bandwidth, and we’re struggling to get online. Luckily they soon all troop off for evening mass and Skye manages to upload yesterday’s account before going to bed.

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