We’ve had the pleasure of doing a lot with David’s family while we’ve been here. Last night we celebrated the birthday of his eldest niece, Seri, and the night before David’s sister graciously invited me to attend her 50th birthday party. It was a women’s-only party because dancing was involved and women who are Jewish Orthodox are not comfortable dancing in the presence of men (it’s just as well since my dance moves would’ve been a lot more excruciating if done in front of a larger group). A dance instructor was there to lead the women in Israeli dances, which was a real treat, despite the fact that my weak attempts to follow along rendered my dance moves unrecognizable.
Our time here hasn’t all been family time, of course. Today David and I returned to the Old City to see it by daylight and enjoy the freshly rainwashed yellow-hued Jerusalem stone that seems to be a part of every building in the city. The most popular gate in which to enter the Old City is the Jaffa Gate, which is also where you’ll find a modern row of cafes and shops, some of which are local chains, but others are shops with which we are well familiar, such as The Gap, Nike, and Columbia Sportswear (go Portland!). The juxtaposition of modern capitalism and an ancient city that encloses one of the most important (and most contested) land in the religious world is a bit too stark to put into words.
We started by visiting the Temple Mount. If conflict arises in the Old City, it is likely centered in this area. Since Christian, Jews, and Muslims each share the same fundamental scriptures within the Bible, Torah, and the Koran, they each stake a claim on this land. The fact that Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah and Muslims view Jesus as a prophet makes little difference, because each religion shares the same belief that this is the site where Abraham sacrificed his son to prove his obedience to God. Later, it also became the site of the First Temple, which was built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians; as well as the Second Temple, which was rebuilt by Herod and subsequently destroyed by the Romans. Now, the Temple Mount is the platform upon which the Dome of the Rock stands (or Haram al Sharif, if you’re Muslim), which is a gorgeous piece of architecture in its own right, with its well-known golden dome that is featured in many pictures of Jerusalem.
After the Temple Mount, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is an important part of Christianity because it’s believed to be built upon the original site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. It is here that you can find the structure that is believed to be the tomb of Christ, as well as other important relics, including a piece of the stone that sealed Christ’s tomb after the crucifixion. The inside of the church is an interesting amalgamation of several Orthodox religions (e.g., Greek, Copts, Armenians, etc) as each attempt to stake their claim to this holy site. At the time we were there, we were fortunate enough to witness a procession of Armenian Orthodox priests who ceremeniously walked into the church to pay homage to Jesus’ tomb. Interestingly, just outside the church is a large, round contraption made of thick steel—these things can be found around the old city, and I’m told they are used to blow up abandoned items when they are found (such as backpacks), lest they contain bombs. With so many groups attempting to stake claims upon various parts of this ancient place, I suppose you cannot be too careful.
Overall, however, I should say that I feel surprisingly safe here. It’s true that you are surrounded by evidence of a country in constant conflict—checkpoints, the armed IDF soldiers, etc.—but to me, the level of danger and safety feels like other countries I’ve visited in this part of the world. Of course, I also realize that part of the reason it feels this way to me is because I’m a foreigner and don’t notice or experience everything in the same way. I am also not a Palestinian, for whom Israel is a vastly different experience. I suppose I will have to dive more into politics a bit later, but for now, I will leave it at that.