Presented myself at the Arlozorov Terminal in Tel Aviv to catch bus 480 to Jerusalem. Bus had AC and wifi, so the hour trip to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station went by quickly.
Managed to find my way to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City with not too much difficulty and then wandered a bit as I waited for the walking tour I’d signed up for – namely Holy City Tour with Sandeman’s. Essentially, it’s a souped up version of their free tour, going for four hours rather than two and with much more depth – and it was a bargain at €17.
Happily, it was a reasonably small group – about ten people – and our guide, Jeremy, was really great. Originally from Liverpool, he’s been living in Israel for six years. And his enthusiasm for the subject matter of the tour was evident throughout – we explored all four quarters (Armenian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim) of the Old City and Jeremy provided a really solid foundation for understanding both the ancient and modern history of an extraordinarily complicated place. His take on Jerusalem was especially engaging – namely, that it is a city that is made up of stories.
Are the stories true? Well, that’s really not necessarily important, as Jeremy opined, given that the history of the Jerusalem is so intimately entwined with religions – and that faith can make the historical veracity of story beside the point.
Jeremy started his tour off in front of the Tower of David by reading a poem by Yehuda Amichai.
The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers
like the air over industrial cities.
It’s hard to breathe.
And from time to time a new shipment of history
and the houses and towers are its packing materials.
Later these are discarded and piled up in dumps.
And sometimes candles arrive instead of people
and then it’s quiet.
And sometimes people come instead of candles
and then there’s noise.
And in enclosed gardens heavy with jasmine
like wicked brides that have been rejected,
lie in wait for their moment.
It was an apt selection as we began our walk.
Oh, and another great thing about Jeremy? He spoke up! That is, I could hear him throughout our tour – at one point, he was even shushed by the priest outside of the Cathedral of St. James (which Jeremy sincerely blamed on how excited he gets talking about the history of Jerusalem – for example, here pointing out that a long ago proscription on Christians ringing bells lead to the pounding of wooden “cymbals,” here seen hanging on either side of the door).
The tour proceeded at a reasonably rapid clip – we certainly weren’t rushed, but Jeremy wanted to be sure we not only saw everything on his itinerary but also had time to answer our questions.
He took us up to a rooftop overlooking the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock (we were at the end of a Muslim holy week, meaning access to parts of the Muslim Quarter was limited to Muslims) – it was a rather amazing vantage point. He then told us all about the Western Wall – and that rather than take us to the “famous” portion of it that we could see, would be taking us to the Small Wailing Wall – a tiny section of the same wall that for hundreds of years had been the part of the wall that faithful Jews sought out for prayers and lamentations.
When we arrived, he encouraged us all to hew to tradition and write our prayers on slips of paper and put them into the wall. He also pointed out that both Obama and Romney had visited the Western Wall during the 2012 campaign – but only one put a prayer in the wall… and he won the election.
We also had a brief stop for lunch – I wound up at a falafel place with a group of jolly fellows from Belfast who’d been in Israel to watch a football match, followed up by a few days sightseeing. We kind of got busted for being too chatty (I was just getting tips on visiting South Korea from one of them!) when Jeremy rousted us from our table to get moving once again.
Through the Muslim Quarter, populated by 30,000 residents – versus about 2500 each in the Jewish and Christian Quarters of the same physical size. It’s pretty clearly not an easy place to live…
Followed part of the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with Jeremy stopping periodically at the Stations of the Cross. Once we arrived at the church, we spent a good amount of time out front with Jeremy telling us a variety of stories about the place (the Immovable Ladder is both an entertaining example of the Status Quo at the church, but also a rather telling symbol of how fraught with the competing faiths and sects Jerusalem remains) – and also advising us that the pilgrims within the church were generally not shy about using sharp elbows to make their way through this holy site.
It was certainly crowded inside – but relatively orderly, all things considered. After visiting the various sections of the church (each under the “control” of one of the six Christian sects), we ended our visit at the Chapel of Adam, the site under Calvary where Adam’s skull is buried – and where Christ’s blood from his crucifixion seeped through the ground to redeem Adam’s original sin. Or so it’s said…
We wrapped up the tour shortly thereafter, back at Jaffa Gate. My only regret? That I had a bike tour scheduled for that evening, meaning I had to decline an offer to hoist a few with Jeremy and the Northern Irish fellows. It was really a great tour – it provided an amazingly robust view of both the ancient and contemporary Old City. I heartily endorse this tour – especially if Jeremy is leading it.
Of course, at this point, I was exhausted and sweaty (and I’m sure I stank), so I was eager to get to my place for the night, Zach and Roi’s extra bedroom that they let on Airbnb. Found their place easily enough and was greeted warmly by my hosts (they didn’t even remark on my odor!). Had a much needed shower and a lie-down, before heading back out to meet up with my bike tour.
I stopped for a bite at Café Yehoshua on my way and had a couple of tasty sliders to fuel up for the evening’s activity. Cool place…
Found my way to the Jerusalem Midnight Bike Ride meet-up site, just down the road from the Jaffa Gate. I was a bit early, but luckily so were some other riders. None of us were quite sure if we were in the right place, but if we weren’t, at least we had company… But we were pretty close – one of the fellows got a message to proceed down the road and look for the guys with bikes in the parking garage.
The bikes provided were pretty nice – though I’ve never ridden a bike with shocks and thought my tire was flat! But they were well-maintained and comfortable. Of course for me (warning: bike snobbery ahead) it was really weird riding a bike with front and rear derailleurs. I’m used to my internal 8-speed hub… which of course led to my dropping my chain early in our ride. Kinda ruined my well-deserved bike cred, but what’re you gonna do?
This, by the way, was the only drawback to the tour – and completely not the fault of the tour company. They are very specific that this ride is for seasoned bike riders – and I’d venture to say I was the only person in the group who met that qualification. The other folks were OK – but I got caught behind one gal who never shifted out of low; some other dude was tailgating and smashed into me at a red light; and a couple of times our guide had to stop and go back when the laggards got lost because they couldn’t keep up… Oh well.
Anyway, despite that, I really loved this tour. After two weeks of traveling and tons of walking, it was great to be back on two wheels. I made a conscious decision not to schlep my DSLR along – and was glad. Though I don’t really have any photos, it was nice to simply be engaged in the activity at hand rather than fumbling for my camera at every stop.
We first rode through the outskirts of the Old City, with a couple of stops for explanations. Wended our way through some parks up to a hill overlooking the Old City, with Jordan visible on the horizon. It was pretty great.
Then back down and biked through the cobbled streets of the Old City. What a difference from that afternoon! It was devoid of tourists, the streets quiet and cool. It was really an amazing ride. If you like to bike (and know how to do so!), don’t miss this tour in Jerusalem.
Headed back to my place, had a great night’s sleep and bade farewell to Zach and Roi as I trudged off to the Israel Museum. And what a trudge it was! Not the easiest place to find, despite being visible at the top of a hill, but I made it just in time to take the hour-long Highlights of the Museum tour at noon.
The lady who gave the tour, who’d studied archeology when she migrated from the Netherlands back in the ‘60s, was a fine guide. She shared a wealth of information in our short time together and had a great sense of humor.
We saw a bit of each of the three major parts of the collection: archeology, Judaica and fine art. Perhaps the most amazing piece was the Ketef Hinnom, a pair of tiny silver scrolls discovered in 1979. The inscription on the scroll includes a Jewish prayer that is still in use today and proves that “some of the material found in the Five Books of Moses existed in the First Temple period.” I tend not to be all that moved by archaeology – but this was breathtaking.
In the Judaica section, one of the highlights was a reconstructed temple interior from Cochin, India. What a marvelous room!
One of the other folks on the tour asked, “Which one is Judas?” and our guide indicated it wasn’t clear, despite the highly-structured composition of the piece.
Now, my philistinism is well-known – but I opined that the one soldier seated second-to-the-right from the Jesus-figure’s was the only one at the table whose gaze wasn’t actively engaged with anyone else’s. And that the half-eaten apple in front of him could represent Adam’s original sin. And that the silver coffee pot in front of him could represent the 40-pieces of silver. I was quite proud of myself for making a trenchant observation!
Even better: our guide said, “Well, from now on, I can tell people on my tour that ‘according to an expert from San Francisco, this is probably the Judas-figure.’” I like her!
Took a quick look at the Dead Sea Scrolls (probably more interesting if I’d taken the time to do the audio tour – the philistine is back!) and then caught a cab to the Central Bus Station.
I’d planned to take the bus again – but it was a 20-minute wait ‘til the next one. Plus the line was quite long, meaning I might not get on until the one in 40 minutes. So, I went back outside and boarded a sherut – a shared taxi. The driver touts his destination and once all nine seats are full, he goes. I boarded and it took another ten minutes to fill up, then we were off. It was very easy.
Once back in Tel Aviv, I actually knew where I was – sufficiently so that I was able to take the bus back home! That’s really one of my favorite things about staying in one place for awhile – feeling like I’m getting to know the place.
Shower, nap, dinner, then home to pack and head back to Istanbul for the weekend. Shalom, Israel! It’s been great.