We arrived in Tel Aviv after a very bumpy flight! At customs, the officer looked through our passports and said, “When were you in Egypt?”
I answered that it was just last week, and he frowned. Then he looked at Turkey and the UAE. “Why did you crisscross the Arabian Peninsula?” he asked.
“The flights were cheaper that way,” I told him.
“That is very suspicious. Do not do that.”
“Uhh…okay,” we agreed.
“I suppose you just like to travel. Well, do not do this again.” But he smiled at the end, just a little one, and let us into the country.
After an hour long bus ride (58 shekels apiece, just outside Exit 2 of the airport), we were dropped off at our hostel, Abraham Hostels. From what I’ve read and heard, this is the best hostel in the area. Most others are gross and dirty. This is designed for youths, but there are young families and some older couples here also.
The next morning we joined a free 2-hour walking tour of the Old City. It really was just a fly-by experience. We stopped at the most important places but did not get a chance to go in the buildings, so at the end Jordan and I grabbed lunch near the Jaffa gate and backtracked to find the most important sites to us.
First, we visited the Tower of David Museum. It was 40 shekels apiece to get in, but if I had my student ID with me, it would’ve been just 25 for me. This museum is about Jerusalem and is in one of the old towers left standing from the old city walls. The current Old City walls (the ones built originally by King Hezekiah, I believe) were destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans, along with the Second Temple. Sultan Sulieman the Magnificent ordered the walls to be rebuilt in the 16th century, and that’s what’s standing today, though many of the stones are thousands of years old.
Anyway, we would recommend this museum. It gave a lot of information that we already knew from Sunday School class, but it put it in the proper historical timeline, which we were both struggling with. And it had lots of models! Below is Jordan with a model of the city walls in Hezekiah’s time, I think.
In the museum complex are current archeological digs that turn up artifacts from David’s time (1000 BC), the Maccabee’s time (164-80 BC), Herod’s time (73-4 BC), and probably more. It also had a lovely model of the City of David, or the Jerusalem that David built after conquering the town from the Jebusites around 1000 BC.
The Kidron Valley is nearest us, and the Central Valley is on the other long side of the city. Solomon expanded Jerusalem up the hill (away from us) and built the temple just outside the walls, on Mount Zion. They think David’s Palace was that large complex at the highest, farthest point in the town. Over the next several hundred years people moved outside the city walls, into the Central Valley and up the next hill. Hezekiah quickly walled those western portions in around 721 BC (and built water tunnels) to protect the Jews from the invading Assyrians. It worked!
After getting our timelines straight, we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We weren’t able to get a really good photo, but here’s the entrance.
We were unprepared for the size of the church, as well as all the chapels and religious communities within it! We had very little idea what we were looking at for the first few minutes, and I think we easily spent 45 minutes inside. When we returned to the hostel we found this nifty little online tour of the place (with photos). Because it is really well done with great photos, diagrams, and explanations, I won’t go into much here. I’m afraid I’d get something wrong if I tried.
Basically, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is on top of Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb. Or at least, where most people guess it is. Protestants tend to believe it was at a different place, called the Garden Tomb. But the Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox all believe it is here, and so they bicker about who gets more control over the building. Seriously. It’s embarrassing. It got so bad a thousand years ago that the sultan said a Muslim family had to hold the key to church because they were the only impartial ones. To this day, that same family still unlocks and locks the church every morning and night.
Emperor Constantine’s mother, Empress/St. Helena began building churches all over the place as soon as Christianity became legal (early to mid 4th century), and she did quite a lot of investigating to find Golgotha/Calvary and Jesus’ tomb. Of course, this isn’t the original church she built, but it stands over the same site. Actually, one of the reasons the Crusades began was because a Muslim ruler destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and shocked all of Christendom. Previous rulers had been tolerant of the churches.
So when you walk in, you see this gorgeous mosaic of anointing and preparing Jesus’ body for burial. On the ground in front of this wall is a stone that may or may not have been the stone they used 2,000 years ago.
As we entered, I prayed that God would make Himself known to us and be with us in a very tangible way throughout the whole experience. The church is over a holy place (despite all the familial bickering) and we both wanted to honor that as well as be near Jesus.
Much of the artwork is hundreds of years old. I can’t remember which denomination’s chapel this is. Each of the six have their own section of the church, and there are common areas underground (where supposedly Helena found the True Cross) and the base of Golgotha/Calvary is.
Going down to the Chapel of Helena are lots of graffiti, shown below.
These are from the Crusaders, people believe, and pilgrims over the years have carved their own symbols and niches. Inside the Chapel of the Invention of the Holy Cross is an ancient carving of a ship as well as the remains of a Latin phrase (“Lord, we came” is most likely). This predates the church, when Emperor Hadrian had built his Temple of Venus over the site around 135 AD. Pilgrimages to the site of a pagan temple also lends credence to the belief that Jesus really was crucified and buried right there (because who would lie about a Roman temple covering a sacred place?).
What surprised me the most was how close the tomb and the crucifixion were to one another. When the Bible said, “because the tomb was close,” I pictured it like a couple of hills over. But no, it really was down the hill and in the side of the next hill. Literally a hop, skip, and a jump. Currently, just the other side of the church.
We entered the edicule (like a tent covering the remains of the tomb), but saw very little. Apparently pilgrims over the years chipped off pieces of the tomb to take home, and now it barely exists.
This is the Greek Orthodox chapel (upstairs) and has the top piece of Golgotha enclosed in glass. The white scarves are elderly Ethiopians on a pilgrimage.
After leaving the church, I felt refreshed and at peace. It was a very powerful experience. For me, this was a “thin place,” where the walls between the spiritual world and this world felt “tissue-paper thin,” to borrow from an Irish theologian.
Next, we visited the Western Wall, nicknamed the Wailing Wall.
Jordan prayed with the men and I prayed with the women. Around me, women really were crying and bowing during their prayers. After praying, I backed away from the wall, removed my head covering, and met up with Jordan to see the City of David.
The City of David is exactly that–Jerusalem at the time of King David. Now it’s an archeological dig and national park. They have student prices, which make it more affordable. The ruins follow along the hill, long and narrow, and are only partially excavated. We saw what might be the remains of David’s palace as well as the entrance to Hezekiah’s tunnels. While the park closes at 5 p.m., the tunnels close at 4 p.m. To go in, you must have a guided tour, purchase a flashlight, and be willing to get wet up to your knees.
Behind Jordan is the end of the Kidron Valley (where Arabs and Palestinian Arabs live now) and further away part of the Central Valley. Behind the camera is the Temple Mount/Dome of the Rock and below us are the possible ruins of David’s palace.
I am just on the other side of the platform, so David’s Palace is still below us and the Temple Mount behind me. The gray dome is another mosque and the Dome of the Rock is behind it.
For anyone thinking visiting the City of David, it is well worth the effort and money. Just make sure you give yourself enough time to go through, because the walk back up the hill is long and hard–especially in the dark. As you go, however, you can see illegal Palestinian homes–a testament to the difficult relations between the Israeli state and the Palestinians living freely within Jerusalem (some with Israeli citizenship). Some Israeli government officials want to expand the City of David and excavate down the hillside, which would displace the Palestinians living there. The government claims they have the right to do so, because the homes are illegal (built without permits). The Palestinians claim they had nowhere else to live, and when they applied for permits they were denied, but that they had to live somewhere. And so the conflict continues.
This was all we’ll have time to see in/around the Old City. Next we go to Northern Israel!