Monday, March 28, 2011

Israel Chronicles: Old IS Gold!

TP and I had decided on a loose itinerary before leaving for Israel based on our reading and our determination of what was a must-do for each of us. As per plan, we set off on a walking tour in the Old City. I highly recommend the Zion Walking Tours, though by Indian standards it seems steep (at approx 1000INR per person).( Our guide (coincidentally named 'Shalom') welcomed us on the tour.

We walked through the very private Armenian Quarters, soaking in the warmth and embrace of the Old City.
The Old City was built sometime in the 1500s and has a high wall all around it. Of the 4 quarters, the Armenian Quarters is most secluded. In it live Christians who practise the religion as per their very Orthodox church. The residents leave the Quarters for work but return by early evening, when the Quarters are physically locked.(Frost's 'The Wall' anyone?)
Some glimpses from outside took us to a world that I'd imagined from the Ukranian Fairy Tales my dad had bought for me when I was 8... women wearing shawls, men with Fez-like hats and black coats and speaking in a tongue that was strange, fascinating and interesting at the same time.

We then walked into the Jewish Quarters. In speech, and perhaps in belief, every Jew I met is highly 'Jewish', which can be loosely translated into anti-Arab (and therefore, anti-Muslim). The average man on the road will talk about how the Jordanian king razed down his grandfather's tombs, or how a Palestinian Arab shot his nephew or how the Muslim Kings built Al-Aksa on their Holy Temple.
A disclaimer here - please bear with my if the next couple of posts seem very Jewish, I shall present the Arab point of view later (when I narrate our visit to a West Bank PA Territory). But for now, let me reiterate that you can almost FEEL the Jewish character on the streets, especially in the Jewish Quarters of the Old City. Most Jews observe the tenets of their religion, growing their sideburns long, wearing a tzitzit (sacred thread) around their waist and their traditional kippah (skull cap). We walked through several interesting ancient structures like the Cardo, the Western Wall Tunnels and finally reached the Western Wall. During our walk our guide freely 'cursed' King Hussein of Jordan and believed it was his right because he fought in a 'war' against him...and my guide was a well-traveled 'liberal'(also his words)!

I can do a few posts on just the Western Wall. The atmosphere in the Western Wall complex is unbelievable. Tirupati perhaps comes close, but not really. Its quieter, more grandiose (no shrine, no idol, no priest, no collection boxes) and apart from the wall, you can see black everywhere(except for the military). The reverberations and energy one feels in the place is immense. The Wall is the culmination of 3 warring religions. The Jews,as per the tenets of their religion, have only one Holy temple(which only their high priest can enter) and several synagogues(for the average Jew to pray in).The temple was built to house the Ark of the Covenant (for more, pls watch Indiana Jones!) and the Foundation Stone (from which the Earth originated and from which Adam was made).
The Muslims also believe in the same Foundation Stone. So do several sects of Christians. Several centuries ago, the Arabs (being more powerful then) built a sacred mosque over the Foundation Stone, called Al-Aksa (one of their 3 holiest shrines, along with Mecca and Medina).The wall closest to the Foundation Stone is the
Western Wall(also called the Wailing Wall, the Holy Wall).The devotion there is touching, Jews from other parts of the world break down in tears, children keep quiet and recite the passages they know from The Torah and men solemnly gaze at the Wall.The sanctity or divine presence is perhaps the faith, hope people repose in the wall for a better tomorrow.

We walked on from the Western Wall via the Cardo(a magnificent Roman structure)to the Christian Quarters. While it does look like the Jewish Quarters, it is not as bustling or as traditional... until one reaches the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Queen Helena (mother of heathen King Constantine) built the Church to honour the last 5 stations of the Christ on his final journey. The spot where his body was prepared after his crucification and the place where he was crucified bear similar attestation to devotion... candles, tears, silent prayers and a strong sense of a divine presence. Again, for the un-religious, I feel it is just the faith that manifests itself as divinity.

We wound up with a brief tour of the Arab Quarters, more a market. Our 'Jewish' guide, who spoke excellent Arabic (business is never confused with personal belief!) gave us some vignettes such as how the Church of Holy Sepulchre was literally a battleground with several Christian sects fighting over ownership and now each of the 'winning' sects have a few square feet each! Also, that the key of the Church is owned by a Muslim family which lives nearby. Finally, as we wound up, he expressed hope for Israel returning 'rightfully' to the Jews.

While we walked around we saw several Army recruits carrying their backpacks and machine guns! Its unnerving seeing 18 year olds walking around absorbing Jewish history and the jingoistic spiel doled out by their instructors swinging their machine guns like water bottles! But this is how the nationalistic spirit is driven in and surrounded by 'hostile' states, Israel does need it.
I have to say, these kids do look rather dashing (do I sound like Mrs.Robinson now?!) in their military fatigues and long sideburns. In fact ALL Jewish sites we went to, had atleast fifty or so military recruits (complete with machine guns) imbibing their ethos. Makes me think, it may be good for India to send all our army recruits to Jalianwala Bagh and Red Fort and perhaps Srinagar and Arunachal Pradesh.God knows we need to get a national spirit going.

After the walk, we indulged in a lovely Hummus and salad meal. The salad portions are huge and come with dips (labneh, baba ganoush). Lots of chick peas. At about midnight we reached a desolate parking lot, the starting point of a guided midnight bike ride. ( 2 South Indian women at 12 in the night at sub zero temperatures? (with teeth chattering and eyes watering) started praying to Tirupati Balaji that somehow the thing is called off (high on enthusiasm, low on warm clothing). HE is powerful, I kid you not. Coincidentally,the other participants cancelled and we gracefully demurred a private tour and came back with a free T Shirt to remember our midnight cab ride to the parking lot.But if you visit in summer, it is surely worth it. The guide and contact person are just so wonderful.The upside? The Parking lot (in an area called Talipiyot) has the loveliest look out of Jerusalem by night... all sparkling and lit up.

Moral of our day? : Warm clothes and good shoes are a must anywhere. Men (i mean people) can get carried away by perceived past slights and behave as though what happened over a thousand years ago can affect their rational judgement now.

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