Friday, March 19, 2004

Bad vibes in Jerusalem

We are now playing in the Red Sea in the Sinai on the coast of Egypt. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Israel. Regardless of what you saw on the news, we felt completely safe while we where there. We rented a car and toured the country on our own. Whenever we were in Tel Aviv we stayed with a wonderful person named Yael whom met while traveling in Guatemala earlier this year. Because of her, we were able to have a nice base to explore from, and she and the kindness of her family really enhanced the trip for us. The country is very small and you can drive from the bottom to the top in about 5 hours and across it in 2. There is so much history packed into the place. Roman ruins, Ancient Tels where as many as 25 civilizations have been built one on top of another, religious sites, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, etc, etc. We put on tons of kilometers on the car crisscrossing the country and visited the Dead Sea twice because floating in it was so much fun.

Here is an excerpt from my journal about our trip to Jerusalem. It was super interesting but not in the way that I had thought.

March 20th, 2004

Today we spent the day wandering through the old city of Jerusalem. It is the walled part of the city in the heart of religious conflict for thousands of years. It is broken up into a Christian, Jewish, Arab and some other quarters that I am sure I am missing. There are no physical walls between the quarters to speak of, just different areas within the same walled compound. I was told that it would have a great vibe but truthfully felt the exact opposite. The second intefada has damaged tourism so much that the business people are having a hard time making a living of it. The Jewish people used to shop in the Arab quarter but are now staying away along with the rest of the worlds tourists. I wondered often about how they were making any kind of living as we were just about the only tourists in any shop we went into. One man we met told us that his brother owned the shop but had to look for work elsewhere because of the downturn. He was working there because he was a retired and it did not matter to him if business was bad, but as he spoke he pointed out all the other closed doors shops had been and had to close.

Upon entering the Jaffo Gate, we turned down a chance for a guided tour from the first guide to approach us. He wanted something like 150 NIS for a 3 hour tour and we thought that the price was too high. Of course we then promptly screwed ourselves by hiring a more expensive guide who undoubtedly saw us for the suckers that we were.

There is so much religious history packed into such a small space here. It oozes out of every building, rock and stone. On the tour we saw Jesus’ tomb, the rock where he was hung on the cross, the point of his ascension into heaven, Kind David’s tomb, The place where Christ delivered the “Lords Prayer” for the first time, the location of the last supper, the garden where he was betrayed, the Jewish Wailing wall, walked the stations of the cross, the place where Mohamed ascended into heaven ( which is also the site of the first and second Jewish temples, and the place where Abraham was to sacrifice his son to god). And on and on and on. It is like walking through the Old and New Testament, and the Koran, all within a few square miles.

Our guide was a Palestinian Christian so our tour had a slightly Christian slant to it. He claimed that he had been guiding for 20 years and owned a home in the Christian quarter. He claimed that the Mormons offered him 1 million shekels for the place and he turned it down because it had been in his family for generations and was beyond value. I asked him if 2 million would have been enough to sell it and he said YES! He started out doing an OK job but the tour quickly deteriorated. We kept standing around looking at locked chapels or areas, and finally Cindy got on him about the fact that we were not seeing very much and he turned kind of nasty. But it did give him enough of a kick in the pants that we managed to see much more.

It was interesting getting a Palestinians point of view on living in a Jewish state. He was not happy with them. He said that he felt like he was treated like a second class citizen although he paid all the same taxes, and he felt that he did not reap the same benefits as the Jewish Israelis. He said that he felt like he was a prisoner in his own country but did not adequately relate to me why. On the flip side, he did not believe that there should be a Palestinian state until the different warring factions within the Palestinian movement got their shit together and could work as one unified group with a clear goal for all. He was definitely a man in the middle.

The more I think about it, the more I think that Jerusalem is not really a spiritual place at all. There is so much anger there between each of the religions. Every one wants to claim a holy place there for their own. For instance, in the church of the holy sepulcher, 5 religions share the place. Roman Catholic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Coptic and Greek orthodox. And they all had different times that they could be there. I think the true meaning of the man and god that these people worship has been lost there. They all seem to be in a great big pissing match with each other over the place. It was very disturbing.

We wanted to get into the grounds of the Dome of the rock. The place where Mohamed ascended into heaven. We were not allowed in because the Israeli guards would not let us because it was the Jewish Sabbath. It made utterly no sense to me that they were stopping us from going into a Muslim site just because it was a Jewish holy day. But, you don’t argue with a gun so we left. We did get in the next day and strangely we felt that it was the most calm and holy place in all of Jerusalem. There is a beautiful tiled and domed building in the center covering the Rock and it was surrounded by gardens. All around us Moslem women were having pick nicks, children were playing and people were just lazing around enjoying the beautiful day. It was very serene. We were only allowed to stay for an hour before we where kicked out.

Tense is a very good word to describe Jerusalem and now after having been there I can really see why. It was a very complicated place. As far as I can tell, the people and many religions there are not going to get past their differences any time soon, as long as they continue to fight each other about the sites and icons of their faith.