Jerusalem: Beautiful, hateful, wonderful
A trip to the Holy Land is on the bucket list for many adherents to the three Abrahamic religions. But seductive Jerusalem is not an easy place to be, writes Christine Hogan.
Finally, after almost a year of planning, and days of travel, we approached the Jaffa Gate in the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Built by Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman conqueror, to protect the holy places of Islam, it leads into the greatest, most contested, centre in and of the religious world.
This was the road into the city which Jesus took, riding on a donkey. Kaiser Wilhelm went through these gates on a white steed; a typical act of arrogance. In 1917, General Allenby did not commit the same mistake. After the city surrendered to his forces, he walked through this gate.
In these narrow streets, fragranced by spices and leather, coffee and herbs, fruit and vegetables warming in the mild, late Autumn sun, fresh-faced young Hassidim, dressed in black, rush to appointments, their ear locks trailing; pilgrims from Mumbai mix with observant Russian Orthodox; a gaggle of Palestinian school boys rushes up the steps of the Via Dolorosa, almost skittling Muslim grandmothers out on their daily visit to the souq; an ultra-liberal American female is introduced to members of our group by a rabbi from Melbourne.
This day is was calm on the surface, but violence is a regular occurrence here and can come suddenly and fatally. Always check Smartraveller for the travel alerts.
Welcome to the Holy City
“Welcome home,” said Fr Juan Maria Solana as he welcomed us one Monday evening. It was a play on words – welcome to your home in Jerusalem (the beautiful guest house of Notre Dame of Jerusalem), but also welcome home to us as Christians to the place where Jesus lived and died and was resurrected… Welcome home to the place where the Christian faith was born.
Fr John, as he is known, is Mexican, a Legionary of Christ, and the Charge of the Holy See here at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Centre. Tall, warm, and charismatic, Fr John has been in Jerusalem for eight years and well used to welcoming people from all over the world home to Jerusalem.
He had an important guest staying – the Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (an order dating from Crusader times) was in house and due to process on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Tuesday morning.
There had been a lot of activity around the Holy Sepulchre in the previous couple of days. The newly arrived Papal Nuncio to Jerusalem had made a similar procession on Monday.
Given we were expecting crushes of people here, it was a pleasant experience to be in relative peace and quiet inside the holiest church in Christendom, the place of the passion, death, burial, and resurrection. One of our group was so moved by being in the tiny grotto of the tomb, she queued up twice to get in there! Welcome to the Edicule, the most sacred monument in Christianity.
The holiest and most contested space in Christendom
Claustrophobic? Don’t go there. The edicule is really small, and you will be in there with two others. However, it has just been renovated, so it might feel better. Also watch out for the aggressive monks who push you in and then drag you out. It is not for the faint-hearted.
The church itself, as our expert Dr Brian Brennan reminded us, has been in contention for millennia. The Greek Orthodox, the Catholics, the Armenians all have bits of it in their care, while the Copts, the last in, have to make do with a toehold on the roof.
So Tuesday was our orientation day in Jerusalem, and it ended with the first of a list of guest speakers, Irris Makler. Australian, a foreign correspondent, and author, Irris has lived here for eight years. The story of her life during that time have been chronicled in her book, Hope Street, Jerusalem.
Lively, engaging, engaged, Irris brought her knowledge and understanding of the current conflict and put it in context for our pilgrims. She had spent the day in Ramallah, at the exhumation of Yasser Arafat’s bones. She covered his burial, the stories about the cause of his death (according to the Muslims, he was poisoned, some Israelis contend he died of AIDS). And now the story had come full circle for him and her.
She is pessimistic about any resolution of the conflict, indicating that for her the root cause was a problem of leadership – or lack of it. The cycle of quiet, unease, violence seemed unresolvable to her in this “beautiful, hateful, wonderful” place.
Where to stay
Notre Dame of Jerusalem. Great location opposite the New Gate, with the light rail to take you down to the commercial centre. It’s essentially a guest house, so no room service, but the staff members are great, and it has a killer view across to the Mount of Olives from the wine and cheese restaurant on the top floor.
What to do in Jerusalem
Walk the tops of the ancient walls.
On the ground, walk through the souqs and the distinct quarters – Jewish, Arabic, Armenian, Christian.
Have drink at the legendary King David hotel. Great view of the old city, good kosher food. The bar is wonderful.
Have lunch in the courtyard of the American Colony Hotel. Leading straight off the Lobby, this is the heart of the American Colony Hotel. This celebrated courtyard has hosted many a famous guest. Shaded by tall mulberry trees throughout the summer and cooled by a central fountain, this leafy outdoor restaurant is warmed by the sun on winter days. Open when weather conditions permit, this is the perfect place for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Want to let Yoram Ottonlenghi be your foodie guide? A Chef’s Guide to Eating in Jerusalem…
Visit Nazareth. It’s dusty and crass. Go through the wall to the West Bank en route to Bethlehem and spend some money in the gift shops – it is vital you leave some money with the people there who are really suffering.
Go to Taybeh, the last all-Christian village on the West Bank in time for Sunday Mass at the Church of the Holy Redeemer (Tel: 02-2898020, Fax: 02-2898160 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org www.taybeh.info.) Walk through the village. Have lunch at Peter’s Place and listen to the Australian accents of the owners while you drink local Taybeh beer. Great food, great view. Lovely village. Don’t miss the ruins of St George’s Church.
How to get there
Etihad to Amman in Jordan, via Abu Dhabi. Stop over to see Petra. Fly into Tel Aviv via Royal Jordanian. Coach or car to Jerusalem,
Main image: The Dome of the Rock from the Mt of Olives (wiki commons)
Image 1: Notre Dame of Jerusalem, from the website
Image 2: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre interior (wiki commons)