“WHAT will you do in Jerusalem?” the Israeli border officer sternly asked.
Regaining perspective following a series of unnerving control checks from Jordan, I couldn’t think of a better answer. “I’ve always yearned to visit the Holy Land as a Christian.” Without flinching during the dreaded interrogation, I prayed there wouldn’t be additional hassle. Sliding back my passport beneath the glass partition, she remarked, “Enjoy your stay!”
Easy enough, or perhaps it was sheer luck. My heart raced with excitement.
Leaving the psychedelic desert behind, the minivan heading for Jerusalem slowly came to a stop, the driver murmured indistinctly in Hebrew when a young checkpoint officer announced, “Hold your passport up!”
“Now what’s the matter?” I whispered in agitation. “This is normal protocol,” my travel buddy, Pinky, answered.
Don’t miss out!
Not to be overlooked, the blue and white Israeli flags flapped in the morning breeze. Shalom. We were in central Jerusalem in an hour.
The sidewalks were choked with vendors selling a diverse range of merchandise. Pedestrians were unfazed by the chill, honks and traffic.
The Downtown Triangle is nestled in the commercial hub of Western Jerusalem. Bordered by upscale shops and roadside eateries, the lively, car-free Jaffa Street buzzed with European charm, thriving with buildings of eclectic architecture. Trams ran through the avenue of palm trees in front of the city hall. Residents, snug in their winter jackets, whizzed about their daily grind.
Diversity in landscape
We oohed and ahhed as we entered another world - the old town of Jerusalem. The small walled city has four quarters, eight gates, over 220 monuments and centuries of history. Sieged by violence and faced with a struggle for political liberation, the Unesco World Heritage Site has endured through time. Standing proud for centuries, the walls protect the most sacred places venerated by Jews, Muslims and Christians. Abundant with historic landmarks worth visiting, pilgrims from around the world also come to the area for spiritual connection.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the focal point of the Christian Quarter. It is the most exalted site of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Altar of Crucifixion, The Stone of Anointing and The Edicule (Burial Shrine) teemed with worshipers. Elsewhere the first century tombs were completely restored in the sequestered crypt.
We drifted through five stations of the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow), a Christian devotion during the Lenten Season, which observes Jesus’ agony to Golgotha (Calvary). Interestingly, every nook and cranny took us a step back in time through ornate chapels and shadowy walkways.
Across the church is the all-too-often ignored Muristan area (Hospital in AD 600) of the Knights of the Order, who cared and protected the pilgrims, and repelled the infidels from the Holy Land. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Sauntering through rows of shops, we couldn’t help but stop to haggle over some impressive rosaries and crucifixes. Along the spice-scented path, we stumbled upon young military forces cheerfully combing the narrow streets and trickling into the wider open spaces of the Jewish Quarter.
“Actually, Israeli citizens over 18 render military service for at least two years,” Pinky mentioned. “Yes, they’re quite hard to miss,” I admitted.
The Western Wall is the holiest remnant of the Second Temple built by Herod the Great. After the Six-day War in 1967, Israeli forces levelled the little Moroccan Quarter to expand the open-air synagogue. Non-Jews are most welcome to visit and pray.
Meandering in and out of souvenir stalls for some leisurely time is invigorating. Just when we thought there could be nothing beyond the corners, the passages became never-ending. The Muslim Quarter is sprawling, you can literally get lost! Armed guards control the restricted access to the Noble Sanctuary Muslims revere as the site where Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Widely known as the Temple Mount, it remains tranquil even during off prayer hours. The magnificent Dome of the Rock and “The Farthest Mosque” (Al-Aqsa Mosque) dot the erstwhile Holy Temple.
Adjacent to the Temple Mount, beyond the Gate of Eternal Life (closed in eighth century), is the Jewish Cemetery. Deemed as the place for the Last Judgement, it has approximately 150,000 graves including those of illustrious rabbis and leaders. Unfortunately, mindless vandalism and desecration of some tombs have been reported lately.
Weary after a long and arduous walk, we inched our way to the deeply spiritual Armenian Quarter. The compound lies in peace and quiet. The grandeur of St. James Cathedral and its religious service have intriguing hidden stories to tell. St. Mark’s Church, regarded as the venue of The Last Supper, is not to be missed!
A sigh of relief
Snack time. Israeli sweet bread and savoury pastries are highly pleasing to the senses. With fresh pomegranate juice to flush a bagel toast down, we walked all the way to time-honored David’s Tower, a citadel-turned-museum illuminated prettily at night.
“We’re blessed this truly unique place lives in our time,” I concluded. “A city that’s like no other!” Pinky confirmed.