Day 8 - the Jewish Quarter to the Garden of Gethsemane
We're aiming for the Western Wall. We walk up a steep hill to our left in the lunchtime heat. All the blotting papers in Tokyo can't save me now. Men in kippahs with long curls on either side of their face walk busily past us. There are boisterous young guys, talking in American accents, carrying their torahs. We ascend at a parking lot, screw our faces up at our very silly Fodor's map, and declare that we're lost. As usual.
We're off to a slow start. The luxury of spending a week or more in cities is that you can have a proper holiday. That means getting up whenever you feel like it, having a really big breakfast, and for me, spending a really long time on my hair and makeup so my travel pictures have that casual OH-LOOK-AT-ME-LANDING-AT-THIS-EXOTIC-PLACE-AND-WAFTING-ABOUT-LIKE-A-BUTTERFLY look. I listen to Ben Howard, London Grammar and Lorde and read my Japanese fashion mags.
Just after lunch time, we're dropped of at Dung Gate. Already everything is different. We're on a hilly bit of the old city overlooking the Mount of Olives. There are less hawkers. The marbled streets are cleaner. It feels more organised. There are lines. In Tokyo, people would already be lining up for the escalator metres out from the bottom of it. That's not really the way it works back in the souks of the Muslim Quarter in the old city.
We play hunt the signs to the Western Wall and for 45 minutes walk round and round in circles through the marbled arcades of the Jewish Quarter and deep into the heart of the souks. Walking the Old Quarter is like walking into an M.C. Escher drawing or playing Monument Valley. It's all upstairs and downstairs and round and round but all leading you back to where you where before.
Finally, we're at the crossroads between a right to the Western Wall and a left to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The young guys tell us it's closed then ask if we're Muslim and then when Rob says no, they say it's most definitely closed. We'd understood that the grounds are open to everyone but non-Muslims can't enter the mosques.
So we creep towards the four fully-armed guards stationed at the entrance anyway. Before us, are three heavily veiled women. An argument breaks out. Everyone speaks angrily. One guard takes the iron barrier and drags it firmly closed. Its a petty move. A shopkeeper on the other side of the barrier comes out, also gesturing at the guards angrily. You don't need to understand the language to understand his plea - let them in. They're Muslim women who've come to pray at their temple. All three guards are firm. The women are agitated.
Rob says, "Let's get out of here". A part of me wants to stay and watch what happens. The less-stupid part hightails it away with Rob and his mum. We walk away and don't look back. When there are soldiers with guns and things get heated, that's the rule.
We put our bags through a scanner to get into the Western Wall. The large plaza is essentially an open-air synagogue. The left-hand side of the wall is for men, the right for women. The nearer I get to the wall, the higher the religious fervour. Women are crying. They're stuffing their prayers, scrawled on paper, into the deepest crevices of the wall, as high as they can reach.
It's just a wall, the rational part of my brain says to me. It's something else, the less-rational part says mysteriously. I stand for a long time.
Spirituality surrounds me. It's so thick I can feel it. The atmosphere generated by those praying around me is filled with emotion. People's dreams are coming true, standing in front of these inscrutable walls. In Tokyo, I felt like crying when seeing a 9 foot robot. I don't think it's an unfair comparison. In the end, it's about fantasy and belief and faith.
I meet Rob and his mum back in the plaza. Rob tells me the men's side have a special indoor bit. For a moment I'm disgruntled. "Of course they do," I huff. Later when I research this, I realise it was even a battle to allow women to pray at this site.
After looking our fill, we weave our way back through the souks and into the open-air and marbled open spaces of the Jewish quarter. We eat shawarma, eggplant salad, and lemonade. The shawarma tastes different; heavily spiced, cut a bit chunkier. Yesterday's shawarma near Damascus Gate was more delicate, salty, with more sauce.
I drag everyone into Burnt House with me. It's 25NIS each. Just as a note, a shawarma sandwich from yesterday was 18NIS. But my love for museums and archeological history wins out. This one is the remains of a burnt house, evidence of the Roman's sack of this part of town in 70 AD. They lit a fire into the city and let it burn everything to the ground, including the temples. The presentation is neat. Over the skeletal remains of the house, projectors are lowered and images of the family in their living room are superimposed onto the corresponding bit of the house. The fire is represented by lights and smoke. It's a good way to understand two things; first, rivalries started then and it continues now, and second, it would take a mighty, mighty force for anyone to take away the Jewish quarter from the people residing in it.
We wander back to the Dung Gate and realised we took a very long long way around to the Western Wall. When we walked in, we should have just proceeded straight through the barrier. Instead, we went up the hill, through the Jewish Quarter, into the souks, back to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, then back round again. We blame Fodor's bad cartography. Let's say it was that.
As the sun sets, we wander the teeny tiny Garden of Gethsemane. I'm floored. This is another celebrity monument superstar. It's the garden where Jesus prayed before he was condemned to death, and also the site where he reveals that Judas will betray him. I think back to art history in seventh form, learning about all the Italian renaissance paintings. Standing in front of the majority of them in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence isn't comparable to how it feels to be standing at the site of what is essentially, a world famous fictional story. You feel what you believe in shaken a little in Jerusalem.
The garden is lovely, laden with big shocks of bougainvillea, roses, thick bushes of jasmine. The olive trees are heavy with fruit. There are some olive trees that are, to quote guidebooks, older than Christianity itself. The roots of those trees are like works of art, twisting, gnarled, knobbly.
Just down the hill and across the road is the Crusader-era Tomb of the Virgin Mary. You descend into the depths, peering through the gloom. There are many lanterns hung in the air. The tomb itself is... tomb-like. It's low lit. People have thrown money and prayers into it.
Suddenly, there's women singing. The acoustics inside make you feel like they're all around you and everywhere. Two priests greet each other and embrace. The women are singing and singing. This place could make believers out of unbelievers. Honestly. I cannot compare it to anywhere else I have every been. It isn't so much the buildings or the sites, but the people and what they bring to it. It charges the air like lightning before a storm. That night, I sleep from 7 pm until 5 am the next day.