Seeking Illumination in Israel, Part One: The Journalist, the White House Intern, and the Holy Land
It’s probably one of the world’s worst-kept secrets that Israel is steeped in history. The Holy Land of the Bible has drawn pilgrims and tourists alike for millennia, and we were but the latest visitors to this conflict-ridden region discussed in news headlines daily.
But there was a twist to our travails. In a plot only Hollywood could come up with, we were a journalist and a former White House intern, alone in one of the most volatile hotspots on the planet. So, what could possibly go wrong, you ask…as we’d discover, plenty.
Things had begun roughly enough. Other than the expectedly high security — which involved officials strip searching myself and all my belongings after nearly two hours of questioning — our nonstop flight from Berlin to Tel Aviv, on Israeli flag carrier El Al, had been among the most unpleasant I’d ever experienced (aided, no doubt, by the fact that there was no free food on the four hour and 10-minute flight, and my being stuck next to two very large, very Russian-speaking individuals, who were still grasping the concept of personal space). After swearing never to fly the airline again (and deciding against a lawsuit), we were now in the Holy Land, with six days to get ourselves into enough trouble to start an all-out holy war.
Transportation in Israel — one of the smallest countries in the world — can be surprisingly affordable, and a trip from Ben Gurion Airport (Natbag), Israel’s main international gateway, to Jerusalem (a distance of about 50 kilometers, or 31 miles) was only 64 shekels (about $18.39, at 3.48 shekels to the dollar) for the 45-minute journey. It was evening when we arrived at what was to be our home for the next few days, a small flat on a hill near the border with the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, graciously loaned to us by a German-born couple who had immigrated to Israel 10 months prior. The roomy space was cozy enough, boasting all the modern amenities one would expect, while still bringing to mind a television sitcom with its open kitchen/lounge area. Exhausted/still smarting from my ordeal on the flight, sleep came easily.
Come morning, it was time to begin to acquaint ourselves with our new surroundings. Such a wish meant there was only one place to go: Jerusalem’s Old City, home to some of the holiest sites in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Jerusalem’s Old City is perhaps the first thing people think of when they consider UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The 0.35 square-mile (0.9 square kilometer) walled area constituted the entire city of Jerusalem up until 1860, and today is home to nearly 37,000 people who live among the countless stalls of the Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Armenian quarters. Locals and tourists combine to form a crush of humanity that is like a living sea almost 24 hours a day, creating a liveliness unlike any other place in the world. Seven open gates lead into the area (out of 11 total gates), the current walls of which were built in 1538 by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In sum: if a person is to see only one thing in the Holy Land, it should be the Old City.
Hopping on a local bus for a mere 6.90 shekels ($1.98; 1.45 euros) to Jaffa Center — a modernist shopping avenue made in the European boutique store tradition, but with a distinct Mediterranean flavor — followed by two stations on the city’s lone tram line (opened in August 2011 and encompassing 23 stations, with shoulder-to-shoulder on-board congestion levels to match London or New York), we came to the Damascus Gate, the most famous entrance to the Old City. Dating to about 1537 in its current form, the Damascus Gate is an impressive structure in its own right, flanked by two towers equipped with machicolations. But its real purpose is believed to transport visitors, who pass under its archway, into a lost world gone from elsewhere since Biblical times.
A rich aroma of odors, from sizzling meats and flowery perfumes to jasmine, frankincense, myrrh, hookah and — could my nose by deceiving me? — hashish choked the air in this darkness-shrouded realm. Here there were snatches of Hebrew being spoken, there Arabic, while in others English, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, French, and more. The merchants were, of course, persistent in peddling their wares — which were as varied as gold and silver trinkets, baked goods like baklava, and even modern video games — but nowhere nearly as pushy as those I’d encountered in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s Osh Bazaar or even Muscat, Oman’s Al-Dhalam souq. In one particular moment of masterful bartering, my companion was able to talk down a merchant from his original asking price of 400 shekels ($114.92; 83.88 euros) to 200 ($57.46; 41.94 euros) for a stylish brown leather bag. Though the price was a bargain, the large, middle-aged merchant — who allegedly had a niece who studied in Germany — went away smarting.
But all the exploring left us as famished as Jesus must have felt during his 40 days of New Testament desert wanderings. There was only one solution: food.
Fortunately, options in the Old City are plentiful, and a pop into a small café for a falafel laffa and iced coffee hit the spot with its combination of ground chickpeas, warm bread, fresh vegetables, and sugar and caffeine. At 35 shekels ($10.06; 7.34 euros), it was a small price to pay for a much-needed energy boost.
Recharged and refueled, we zigzagged our way through the seemingly never-ending maze and past lollygagging locals and tourists to the Western Wall, perhaps the holiest site in Judaism. Believed to have been constructed around 19 B.C. by Herod the Great, the Western Wall is the only remaining portion of the Jewish Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant — among other sacred relics — was kept. We weren’t Jewish, but were pleasantly surprised to find we were allowed to approach the craggy edifice jammed with the handwritten prayers of countless pilgrims and populated by a not-insubstantial colony of birds.
As per religious edict, men and women must be separated at the wall, meaning we would have to part company, if ever-so-briefly. Descending a smooth and somewhat slippery ramp, I found myself within arm’s reach of the last vestiges of the temple purportedly built during the time of King David and Solomon. Reaching out to touch it, I was surprised as to just how smooth it was; a condition, no doubt, brought about by millennia of physical contact with millions upon millions of souls. To my right, an Orthodox man in traditional garb leaned completely against it, tears streaming down his face as he spoke in quavering Hebrew. To my left, a Slavic-looking man stood as still as a statue, in complete silence. I took the latter approach, appreciating the important history the wall has played in the region’s history and reflecting upon my journey thus far. My brief cogitation over, it was off with Ally, my companion, to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed by Christians to be the place where Jesus rose from the dead.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is arguably the most important site in Christianity. It is here, some believe, that Jesus’ tomb was — originally owned by Joseph of Arimathea — as well as the exact place where the resurrection was said to have occurred. Jointly run by several different churches (including the Catholic Church and Greek Orthodox Church, among others), the church within the Old City’s Christian Quarter appears unassuming from the outside, but the interior is a deceptively massive complex of hidden passageways, soaring balconies, plunging caves, exquisite shrines, and more. Even for the non-religious (anyone is allowed entry free of charge), the church stirs the imagination, its very existence — and supposed need for liberation from “heathens” — is the main reason the European Crusades occurred in the first place.