“How close are we to the Syrian border?” I asked.

Our friend Tony laughed.

“You’re in Syria,” he said. “That’s Damascus over there.”

He was pointing in the distance to a low beige-looking city close to the horizon. It would be much clearer at night with the city lights, he told us.

We were standing at the side of a peaceful stretch of road staring off at what looked like a last outpost before a vast, dry and rocky landscape sprawled into the distance: Syria.

We had pulled over to look at the view after passing several warning signs and barbed wire that mark the 1967 ceasefire line. There were memorials dotting the road here and there along the border. They commemorated the lives of soldiers who died in the six-day war.

Tony had taken the afternoon and evening to show us around the area. He lives in the Golan Heights above the Sea of Galilee and has made it his home for 40 years. He told us there were places that still had buried mines, but they were well marked. The roads were very safe and we had nothing to worry about.

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Israelis have planted something like a quarter of a billion trees all over the country. In contrast, the landscape just a few kilometres away in Syria was a bald and rocky desert. I took photographs of the landscape almost unconsciously. I kept thinking about the people in Syria just over the narrow valley. So much death and suffering and cruelty were so close to this green agricultural oasis.

The Sea of Galilee
Sunset on the Sea of Galilee

As we drove around the Sea of Galilee, we passed through towns built under the Romans, and much older places inhabited for millennia by different peoples. Galilee is remarkably free of development. Apart from a few large towns like Tiberius which, at two thousand years old qualifies as a relatively recent development, there are no communities of densely-packed condos and luxury hotels, and remarkably few resorts. The Israeli government seems to have done much to preserve the area. Still, it felt a bit strange passing through such spiritually meaningful places and then seeing large military installations. We’ve been in Israel now for several weeks. The country lives under an existential threat not known by many other countries. Tensions permeate the region. It is a rich and complicated place.

Galilee is dense with history and religious energy. Jesus spent years preaching in and around Galilee. Today there are churches marking the spots believed to be the places of various events or miracles in the New Testament associated with Jesus’ ministry.

Overlooking the Sea of Galilee stands the Church of the Beatitudes. For many Christians, this is one of the most important religious sites because it commemorates the place where Jesus is said to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount, including the famous Beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount is a concise summary of the heart of his moral teaching. In these, the longest passages of the New Testament attributed directly to Jesus, he emphasizes love, compassion and humility above all else.

Church of the Beatitudes the location where it is believe Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount
Inside the Church of the Beatitudes

The church of the Beatitudes is a beautiful, understated and peaceful little church run by an Italian Catholic mission. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the only parts of the Bible that ever resonated with me. Remove them from their Christian sectarian context and these messages of truth, providing guidance for living a proper life, could have been delivered by any spiritually-realized human being. They are practical instructions for real life: Do not judge others or look for flaws in them, we are all flawed. Control your anger and negative impulses. Be a peacemaker. Be generous. Love others, including your enemies.

Standing on the side of the road, staring at Damascus, I thought about the Sermon on the Mount. Two thousand years and we all still have such a long way to go.

The Old City is a time machine.

For millennia, Jerusalem has stood at the centre of history and it feels just like that. Despite the fact that several very tense days in the city had just passed, it wasn’t the tension of present political problems that was most palpable. Instead we felt the heavy weight of centuries packed with a density of spiritual faith unlike anywhere else we have ever been.

It’s easy to wander here, lost deep in the past. After our return from Palestine, we spent several days with our new friends Ran and Avital, Israeli meditators who live just outside Jerusalem. We were lucky to visit the Old City with Avital. When you travel, there is nothing better than seeing a place through the eyes of someone who lives there.

The Old City of Jerusalem is surrounded by ancient walls with several gates.

image credit: from Wikipedia

The Jewish Quarter

The Zion Gate is the gate that faces Mount Zion and is closest to King David’s Tomb. We started there at the traditional gate leading to the Jewish Quarter.

Zion Gate
Above the complex believed to house King David’s Tomb
A partial view of King David’s Tomb from the men’s worship side of the complex

There is no evidence that David was ever buried here or that his palace was ever located on the site, but the Jewish belief in it has been around since the 9th century AD. Since 1948 it has served as an important centre of Jewish worship and religious study. However, since the 4th century AD, the site is also believed by Christians to be the location of the Cenacle of Jesus, the site of the Last Supper and where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. You don’t have to be here long to realize that nearly every square meter in the Old City is a fraught and contested place. The site was quiet and peaceful, considering it sees large numbers of both Jewish and Christian visitors.

The Jewish Quarter is the most renovated and modern of the city’s four quarters. There are fewer of the narrow, ancient alleys that characterize the Armenian, Christian and Muslim areas.

The newer looking alley ways of the Jewish Quarter

In the 1948 war that followed the creation of Israel, Jerusalem was sacked by Jordanian forces and the Jewish residents were forced out. Much of the destruction was focused on the Jewish neighbourhoods; the synagogues were destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Today it hosts new synagogues and museums, art galleries, ice cream shops and cafes. The Jewish Quarter has a bright and new, almost touristy feel to it.

The Jewish Quarter houses the Western Wall, one of the oldest places in the city. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD when they also expelled the Jews from Jerusalem. The Western Wall is a part of the original wall that still remains from that Temple.

To understand the significance and age of this place, the Second Temple was built by the Jews to replace King Solomon’s First Temple when it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Temple was central to Judaism and protected the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary that contained the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. This functioned as the dwelling place of God. Since the Second Temple’s destruction, the exact location of the Holy of Holies on the current Temple Mount is unknown. Therefore, the Western Wall is the closest place to the Temple Mount where Jews can worship close to God without treading on the Holy of Holies. However, while the Temple Mount is vitally sacred to Judaism, it’s also a sacred place for Muslims which has been under Muslim administration since 1948.

Prayers and wishes pressed in to the cracks of the Western Wall

The Christian Quarter

We had started in the Jewish Quarter, but our destination for the day was actually inside the Christian Quarter.

Avital and Karen in the Christian Quarter

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre marks the two holiest sites in Christianity: the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and the neighbouring site of his burial and subsequent resurrection. The two sites are housed in one complex but technically they are two separate churches joined together.

The plaza entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is magnificent. This was a meaningful pilgrimage stop for Karen who wished to say prayers for her mother and her aunt Ruth, both Christians for whom this would mean the world. Due to the scarcity of land in the Old City after so many centuries of habitation, the church cannot be viewed as a free-standing structure. It abuts all of the buildings next to it except for the small plaza in front of the entrance. It feels like a place of true and sincere pilgrimage, much like the site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Given the vast numbers of people who visit each day, the atmosphere was respectful and relatively quiet inside the Church.

The dome of the Aedicule (the tome of Jesus).
The Stone of Anointing, a slab of marble believed to have been used
to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. Pilgrims pray and lay precious objects on the stone
– such as crosses or family items.
Karen saying payers on her family’s behalf on the Anointing Stone. The cross she is laying on the stone is for her mother.

 

An Orthodox priest at the Chapel of the Crucifixion
The Chapel of the Crucifixion
Pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa (the route taken by Jesus on his way to be crucified)

The Muslim Quarter

A couple of days later, we met up with a Palestinian friend named Issam. He lives in the city of Jericho, located in Palestine (West Bank). It took several different buses and a checkpoint crossing for Issam to meet us at the Damascus Gate of the Old City. He wanted to show us the Muslim Quarter, so that was the plan for our day. In fact it had been a long time since Issam himself had visited Jerusalem. Palestinians don’t easily obtain permission to enter the city. But he was retiring soon and was of the age when the rules are relaxed. We met him early, but before passing the soldiers on duty and entering through the gate he wanted first to sit outside the Old City just below the walls. He had brought breakfast.

Reunited with Issam – a Vipassana meditator from the Palestine course

We found a picnic table and some chairs. Issam dug inside his backpack and produced a large and heavy serving dish made of clay filled with homemade hummus. Issem’s wife had insisted on packing it up for him to share with us. We munched on this delicious dish and caught up. Issam is a Vipassana meditator who had served as a volunteer manager on the course we just finished in Zababdeh. When were all full of hummus, we packed up and made our way into the Old City.

Issam carried this ceramic bowl of hummus, in his backpack, for two hours,
on buses and through checkpoints, just to share it with us

We entered the Damascus Gate and turned left into the Muslim Quarter. We walked along the old and dark winding alleyways and explored various Arab shops. This is the Jerusalem of my imagination. Ancient and crowded with people buying freshly baked bread and sweets, none of which would be eaten until after sunset. It was the start of Ramadan and so observant Muslims would be fasting from sunrise to sunset.

Damascus Gate
The best zatar bread we’ve ever tasted. We mean it.
Karen’s own Holy of Holies

 

Endless platters of freshly made sweets

 

Pancakes stuffed with cheese or nuts, drizzled with light honey, despite what you may imagine this wasn’t too sweet

 

 

 

 

 

Issam wanted to show us Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, so we made our way through the Muslim Quarter to the alley leading to the Temple Mount. We squeezed past a group of soldiers.

“Hey! Where are you going?” One of them asked. “To Al-Aqsa,” I told him.

He shook his head, “Not today. Muslims only.”

“Oh.”

He looked at our disappointed faces and asked us where we were from. We told him we were Canadian. He then smiled, almost laughing and very politely told us we could come back tomorrow and it would be open from 7:30 am. He explained the Temple Mount was closed to non-muslims on Friday and Saturday. We hadn’t even thought about the fact that it might be closed. This was to be our last day in Jerusalem and we had looked forward to visiting the Temple Mount. Such is life.

The best coffee we’ve ever had. And this time we mean it.

We decided to stop for coffee at an Arab café. Issam ordered us Arabic coffees. We’ve had several since arriving in Palestine, but this was something else. The best coffee we’ve ever had. I know. You’ve heard this before. In fact, you may have heard us say it a few times. We said it in our last post, the one about our time in Palestine. We’ve had Arabic coffee now dozens of times. And look, it’s always delicious. But honestly this time was different.

If you ask anyone in Palestine or Israel who makes, cooks, brews, or bakes anything, they will tell you theirs is the best. “If you don’t like it, don’t pay for it,” said one baker to us about his “world’s finest croissants.” The tea man in Bethlehem said the same thing to us. Both actually were amazing. But… this coffee here truly was the best. Full stop. Period. The end.

Issam asked the owner how he made it and then explained it to us. He takes Arabica coffee beans, together with dried ginger and cardamom, and roasts them in the stone oven of the Arab bakery next door. Then he grinds it. He cooks the coffee using the normal Arabic method of bringing coffee powder and water to a boil and then removing it from the heat. He repeats this a few times until the coffee is nice and strong. It’s perfection. Not acidic or bitter. Naturally sweet. And STRONG. Oh, my.

After our coffee we walked for a while longer and then instead to enjoy a beautiful Arabic lunch and then walked back to the Damascus Gate and said goodbye to Issam.

We had almost explored every quarter of the Old City. We left a bit disappointed, and would miss a spectacular part of the Jerusalem experience. But we had no one to accompany us and were about to leave Jerusalem for Tel Aviv.

The world’s most complicated place

Early the next day, Karen woke up before me, already on her laptop. She had been looking for the opening hours of the Temple Mount.

“I think we should just go on our own and see the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa,” she told me. “It’s open today from 7:30 to 11:30.” We wouldn’t have local friends with us, but we didn’t care. We just couldn’t leave without seeing the Temple Mount.

We quickly made coffee, then called a taxi and headed for the Dung Gate, the one closest to the entrance.

The line was already very long when we arrived. There were two lines, one for Orthodox Jews and one for everyone else. We waited for nearly two hours and then suddenly were allowed to walk through the IDF security gate and metal detectors before walking up a covered wooden rampart that led to the Temple Mount.

Many Rabbis, Orthodox or not, discourage Jews from visiting the Temple Mount. They argue that since the destruction of the Second Temple, no one knows the exact location of the Holy of Holies and thus one might be trampling all over it without knowing. But for many Orthodox, visiting the Temple Mount gets them closer to God than anywhere else, so they go.

They are permitted to visit the site, however they must do so in small groups and be escorted by police. This is to deter conflict between them and Muslims.

 

 

Conflict can erupt here at any moment, so the IDF keep a tight lid on religious worship. A few days earlier, IDF soldiers were forced to separate large groups of Orthodox and Muslims on the Temple Mount and then remove them. They were antagonizing each other, the Orthodox singing religious songs at the top of their lungs, and the Muslims returning with shouts of Allahu Akbar. Things got very tense, very quickly.

Despite what seemed like a lot of people waiting in line, we felt nearly alone when we finally entered. What an amazing place this is. The rather plain, non-descript Al-Aqsa Mosque is among the most important sites in Islam. One of just two mosques mentioned in the Quran, it is interesting in itself.

The entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque
Al-Aqsa Mosque from outside the Western Wall

But then there is the Dome of Rock. It is unspeakably beautiful. Perfect architectural symmetry and artistry. I stood there alone in front of it for a few moments and just stared. I forgot about everything else. Even that perfect coffee.

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock houses an ancient holy site. The third holiest site in Islam, for Muslims this is the rock where Muhammad ascended to heaven after traveling from Mecca. It was here that angels gathered two thousand years before the creation of Adam and where the angel Israfil will sound the horn of Redemption before Armageddon.

For Jews, the same rock is the foundation stone of God’s creation, the very place where the world was created, it is the site where God dwelt (or dwells) and where the Ark of the Covenant was kept safe. It’s the Holy of Holies. This is the rock where Abraham bound his son Isaac in preparation for sacrifice. It plays prominently in the Old Testament, so for Christians, this place is also meaningful. This is the navel of the world.

The Temple Mount holds importance to all three faiths, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. They are all people who worship the same God and who look to similar religious traditions and prophets. But each hews to a variation of that tradition and holds one version to be supreme and exclusive. If the world did indeed begin on this spot, the universal human tendencies toward tribalism must also have sprung into being here. Wherever God dwells, I wonder what He or She thinks of all of this?

A Muslim returning from prayer walks across the Temple Mount

Dome of the Rock looking from Al-Aqsa Mosque

One of several domed buildings on the Temple Mount

We spent a couple of hours on the Temple Mount, sitting quietly and walking around. This is a special place, one I’d return to. We exited the Temple Mount through the Chain Gate back into the Old City and made our way to the Arabic café from the day before. We had lunch and another perfect coffee and then picked up some Arabic sweets on our way home.

In a few days we would head to Tel Aviv. We would be leaving Jerusalem behind and entering an entirely different place. A different planet. More on that soon…

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