Dried fruits tempt the stomach at the Mahane Yehuda market, which is open seven days a week. Photo Credit: Benjamin S. Mack/GALO Magazine.

Dried fruits tempt the stomach at the Mahane Yehuda market, which is open seven days a week. Photo Credit: Benjamin S. Mack/GALO Magazine.

But we were still craving adventure, and Palestine certainly promised that. The last time I’d been to an area said to be as dangerous, I’d spent New Year’s in Pyongyang, North Korea. But unlike that secretive state, where foreigners are subjected to 24-hour surveillance, bugged hotel rooms and “guides” who work for the government, security appeared nonexistent as we got off on Hebron Road and hailed a taxi that took us to the church. There was but a single checkpoint demarcating the border between Israel and the West Bank that we passed through, and though it was staffed by uniformed men with Uzis and bulletproof vests, we were told by a fellow passenger we would not be searched until we left Palestine — so much for high security.

Our driver, Khalid, spoke good English, and offered his views on everything from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the weather and his opinion of Germany; like seemingly everyone we’d met, he too had a relative studying in the land of bratwurst and schnitzel. After about 10 minutes, and a healthy workout for the jaw and ears, he let us off at a small square next to the Church of the Nativity. No sooner had we handed him 20 shekels ($5.76; 4.24 euros) and exited the vehicle, when a haunting sound I’d heard many times before pierced the air.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar
Ash-hadu an’ la ilaha ill Allah…

It was the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, emanating from the minaret of a mosque just a few feet away. It was also Friday, the day Muslims are expected to go to the mosque for prayers, and the call summoned hundreds of men and women who made their way through the streets to the mosque.

I wanted to join them. I’d heard the call before in Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Oman, and every time it sent shivers down my spine. I’d even prayed at a mosque in the Oman capital of Muscat, a moment that was seared into my brain as one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of my life.

But we were pressed for time, and the queue in front of the church, an area known as Manger Square, was growing. Regrettably, I did not attend Friday prayers.

But the regret was soon forgotten as we passed through the small Door of Humility, as the church’s traditional entrance is known, and into a chamber where tears flowed from Orthodox pilgrims as freely as a waterfall. The original basilica of the church was destroyed by a fire during the Samaritan Revolts in the sixth century, with a new basilica built in 565 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Marble and stone predominate the multi-columned basilica, around which numerous icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary can be found underneath dozens of massive silver chandeliers. A thick smell of incense choked the air, a heaviness which combined with the breathing of visitors and black-robed monks created little clouds in the air, not unlike a fog machine at a club.

Most of the church’s visitors, naturally, were thronged around the entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave located beneath the basilica. At what is allegedly the exact spot where Jesus was born, a 14-pointed silver star is set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps. A previous version of the star was stolen in 1846, and became one of the major catalysts that sparked the Crimean War. It was an impressive enough site, religious significance aside, that made us forget time and place amidst the reverence of the moment. To think some people spent their entire lives saving enough money to make a pilgrimage here, to see this spot on the ground, was humbling. It was one of those moments that made me appreciate just how lucky my life is.

The mood of unexpected revelation continued after we left the church. I was surprised to find the West Bank was not nearly as destitute as some media reports made it out to be. Some of the buildings did sport battle scars and bullet holes, sure, but they were all more or less intact. There didn’t seem to be a lack of electricity, and some cafes and restaurants even bragged of free WiFi. Automobiles were plentiful, and we even saw — oddly enough — an Acura dealership. A crumbling war zone this was not.

It was by now early afternoon, and as tends to happen when exploring a new place, our stomachs were screaming for sustenance. We happened upon a friendly vendor operating a small stand in an alleyway just off the road, who cooked up an egg and cheese “pizza” in a portable oven for just six shekels ($1.72; 1.27 euros). Some piping-hot Turkish tea for an additional four shekels ($1.15; 0.84 euros) provided the perfect complement to the gooey — yet surprisingly filling — bread product, which reminded me of a deep dish pizza from a fast food chain, sans unnecessary grease.

“We Palestinians are resilient,” explained Marwan, an elderly man I met along Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City the next day. “Times may be difficult, but we know how to survive. We’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Sipping a cappuccino for 17 shekels ($4.89; 3.59 euros) at the Austrian Hospice — an institution founded by Archbishop of Vienna, Vincenz Eduard Milde, his successor Archbishop Joseph Othmar Ritter von Rauscher, and Emperor Franz Joseph in 1854, and today known as one of the best coffee houses and hotels in the city — I cogitated on his words. Despite things being better than I imagined, life certainly did not seem easy for the people living in the West Bank; I could only imagine what conditions were like in Gaza.

Resilience wasn’t all Marwan and I had discussed during our roughly three hour stay at the Austrian Hospice and the Muristan, as the Christian Quarter of the Old City is known. “But we are also hopeful,” he’d said. “One day, we will have a state. One day.”

With the fans of perhaps Jerusalem’s only Viennese coffee house whirring at nearly full power, almost drowning out the sound of the late afternoon Adhan, I leaned back in my chair. I had a feeling he’d be proven right one day.

Stay tuned for part three of Benjamin Mack’s adventures in Israel and Palestine, and if you haven’t already read part one, be sure to check it out here. The photo gallery below is best viewed in full-screen mode (icon on right).

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