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A Tourist in Jerusalem

There are times in Jerusalem where you can put it all out of your head: the intifada, the occupation, the clawing sales people; and experience a truly beautiful, spiritual moment.

One such moment came to me during an early morning sunrise at the Garden of Gethsemane just outside the Old City. But like everything else here, it wasn’t subtle, and it didn’t come without a fight.

My long-planned trip to the Holy Land happened to coincide with the opening weeks of the coalition invasion of Iraq. There was a strange calm over Jerusalem during this period: no suicide bombings and no major West Bank battles. It was as if all conflicts were set aside until this one that was consuming the world finished its first act.

There was also the very real fear at this time that Israel would be attacked with chemical weapons from Iraq or Syria. After being assigned a government-issue gas mask at Ben Gurion Airport, I took a bus and got off in West Jerusalem.

It was from a street corner along Jaffa Street that I first caught sight of the old walled city.   I’m not the only one who has struggled to express the power and feeling of this place, but when you first see the ancient city center of Jerusalem from a distance, it fills you with dread. Yet it’s absolutely hypnotic at the same time. I walked in that direction – toward the old stone walls,, and the buildings visible within their parameters: the Dome of the Rock and the Tower of David most prominent among them. I had registered at a hotel online, and it was located inside the Old City. But I think the truth is, the Old City just pulled me in.

Even now, that first experience of ancient Jerusalem from a distance has an unreal quality in my memory. It was like a far away mirage you might see on a weary, thirsty day, when the dry heat seems to be alive, with a pulse that massages muscles you didn’t realize were tired; and an invitation to forget what you know.

I entered the old walled city through the Jaffa Gate. This was a climactic experience: In the Bible you’re reading about heaven and Jerusalem in the same sentence and now you find yourself standing in Jerusalem and somehow you’re still breathing. It was a feeling borne of that lifelong foreshadow of the Holy Land we all have from church and news reports.

But there’s also something else there. It’s almost as if the city sits over an invisible, pre-creation volcano that’s spewing pain and euphoria and it’s just a matter of time before that hot lava consumes you.

It’s the most hotly contested piece of real estate in the world, for maybe the last three millennia.  This ancient city center – about the size of an American shopping mall – is the place where Jesus was cruciified, where Muhammad met God, and where David vanquished his enemies and proclaimed allegiance to one deity only.  
I checked into the Hotel/Hostel Petra. Every manner of religious zealot could be found during this time of international crisis. No one slept much. Everyone gathered in the lobby, watched television stories about the war, and talked about God. One of the first fellows I met in the lobby was an elderly Pentecostal preacher from Georgia. He spent each day wandering around the tombstones – and dodging the muggers –  on the Mount of Olives, just outside the walls of the city. In the hotel lobby, he tapped his cane up and down the stairs next to where he sat, and explained to me how the Iraq war was the start of Armageddon – the end of the world.

This meant the Rapture was soon to follow, he reasoned. And everyone knows the old verses say the souls on the Mount of Olives will be the first taken into heaven. He intended to be among them, he told me, adjusting his old southern gentleman’s white-rimmed sun hat.

As I traveled the world in 2003 I learned that, outside of Europe, the only Americans many people meet are fundamental Christian missionaries.

Also staying at the Hotel Petra was a middle-aged Jewish man from France. He believed the messiah would arrive in Jerusalem by the weekend. To welcome his arrival, he prayed daily at the Western Wall.

“Jerusalem must be continuously destroyed and rebuilt,” he portended.  

Then there was the Muslim man from Jordan. He could argue for hours that there was no Israel. He had memorized all the old disputed borders, from the time of the ancient Canaanites until after the Six Day War, and would list them off at the slightest interest.

A lot of these characters led churches, mosques and synagogues back where they came from, but in Jerusalem everyone is a pilgrim, whether they want to be or not, and even if they’re toting a gun.
 After my long flight, and now that I was checked into my hotel, I was looking for something to take the edge off.  And by that I meant a beer, not scripture.

What I was offered, however, was a Turkish coffee – and my own cross to bear.

As I walked down the narrow Via Dolorosa, ostensibly the path where Jesus was forced to carry his cross, a robed fellow with a beard spotted me and said “hello!” like he was my oldest friend.

“It is my duty to welcome you to the Holy Land with a Turkish coffee,” he said, putting his arm around me.

I politely declined. I was in a hurry, I said.
But before I could finish my sentence, I noticed he had a camera in his hand. It was mine. He had somehow pulled it from my bag, which I had naively failed to zipper. 

“Hey!” I said.

Our arms grappled for a moment over the camera. In the end I got the camera back. But then a look of pain came over the man’s face, and he pulled a little blue cross from his pocket.

“Please, please you don’t know how I suffer,” he said to me. “This cross is for you.”

He pushed the intersected pieces of painted sheet metal into my palm, then looked me plaintively in the eye.

“Ten dollars is all I ask,” he said.

I looked at the little blue cross. I wanted it.

I knew this was a con; and I was the sucker.

But I wanted this cross anyway.

Such is life.

I gave the man a fifty Shekel note, which is equal to about 10 dollars. He smiled like a rascal and immediately disappeared into the bustling labyrinth of ancient footpaths that comprise the Old City.
I spent the next week touring the holy sites. Kind David’s tomb. The church of the Holy Sepulcher. The Mount of Olives. The Tomb of the Virgin Mary.

The aggressive hordes of souvenir hawkers, tour guides and beggars can rob you of any joy of discovery at the holy sites  if you let them. It takes a shouted “go away” to make them disappear.

I took a bus south of Jerusalem to swim in the Dead Sea and climb Masada. I spent an evening accepting free drinks in Tel Aviv, from people who found out I was American, and wanted to toast.  Virtually everywhere I went, I was the only tourist.
Billboards welcoming new year’s eve 2000 could still be seen all over Jerusalem. That’s the year the intifada began. No one had bothered to take them down. That’s when organized tours to Jerusalem from all over the world stopped coming. Each month for nearly four years now the U.S. State Department has renewed its recommendation that the region be avoided altogether. 

I was at first hesitant about visiting Bethlehem, in the Palestinian West Bank. So I asked for advice from a Carmelite Nun from Australia who ran the Jerusalem tourist information bureau. I was the only person to visit that day, and she became mordant when discussing her adopted city. “The old Jerusalem is gone,” she told me, referring to the 1990s, a decade of relative peace here. “We’ll have to wait around and see what the new one looks like.”

She encouraged me to visit the West Bank. “Go – you’ll be fine,” she told me. “You should see it. You have my blessing.” So I walked to the Israeli checkpoint, then took a taxi to the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. 

Here were old, beautiful sites. I paid a Palestinian man five dollars for a narrated tour of Christ’s birthplace. Afterwards he gave me, free of charge, his take on the world: “It’s all mafia. Everyone is looking out for their own interests. It’s not any more complicated than that.” After I took a taxi back to the checkpoint, and then walked the couple of miles back towards the city center. When I caught site of the Old City of Jerusalem from a distance this time, I had an entirely different impression than I did the first time around. It now appeared to me a lot less ethereal.

Instead, I thought of it like a sand castle that has remained out of reach of the ocean tides for a long time. And each successive beach comber who comes across it, molds his how handful of wet sand onto the castle and signs it, sometimes destroying an old part to make room for their contribution. First the Canaanites and Hebrews, then the Greeks and Romans, then the Crusaders, Muslims, Turks, British and Israelis and so on.  Plaques, monuments, rebuilt steps, walls, museums, churches, synagogues, mosques from all parts of the world, from the ancient to the modern, are all in Jerusalem.

It’s as if people are trying to grab a beach head – orr launch an advance team – onto the hereafter. As if enough monuments can earn salvation. As if death can be conquered.

But Jerusalem is only a place.

There’s endless military battles going on over this place, which is essentially a few miles of sand. But that sand somehow promises that there’s more to life than just all that.

Really, I reasoned, we’re all just here to conquer Jerusalem – andd through that, the afterlife, one way or another.

This was the cynical direction of my thoughts at that time.
At the Hotel Petra my room’s balcony overlooked a contentious intersection, where Orthodox Jewish men traded passing insults with young Palestinian men. Both demographics have huge numbers of unemployed, eating up a lion’s share of government entitlements from foreign donors. To my eyes they appeared as proxy warriors for either side of world sentiment, an alternately absurd and deadly dangerous contest. That being said, outside of the tourist areas, you mostly meet the so-called “silent majority” – those people in Israel and the Palestinian territories who simply want to work their jobs and go home to their families, and don’t want to fight with anyone. These people seem to suffer the most from the region’s ongoing conflict. They don’t really care who collects their taxes, they just want to live in peace.
Religious debates would spring up frequently in the lobby of the Hotel Petra, as the threat of a weapons of mass destruction attack on Jerusalem appeared to become less likely as the coalition forces took over Baghdad. In the lobby, the television was always tuned to the war in Iraq on the BBC. An odd brand of interfaith camaraderie, born of crisis, emerged among the disparate hotel guests during the assault on Iraq’s capital city. At first I delved into the discussions, as we were in Jerusalem, the eye of the spiritual hurricane, arguing scripture and death – and trying to fit it into the evolving storyline as spun by broadcast anchors.  I can quote the Bible with the best of them. But of course death had no answer, so we were left with faith, that place where emotion check mates logic. Faith, or nothing at all.  Faith, because deep down we all know there’s something bigger going on than our five cumbersome senses can pick up on.

One night late in my trip I grew tired of the hotel lobby debates and went up to the roof to catch a night time view of Jerusalem.  I suppose it was just a matter of time before one of these spiritual hucksters in the hotel got to me. And there she was, saying prayers atop the Hotel Petra.

She appeared happy, and wise as only one who is close to death can be. I was right: turned out she was from Uganda, she was suffering from AIDS and her name was Stephanie. 

“But you should call me Esther,” she said, having titled herself after the Biblical beauty who rose from a king’s harem to rescue her people.

My disillusionment must have been written large upon my face.

“You must let go,” she said. “Just let go and let the spirituality of the place flow into you.” Maybe I was just another guy looking for a good woman to forgive my sins.

Or maybe my natural optimism was just looking for a way to return.

Either way, I knew she was right.

I confessed to her that I felt like just another conqueror, trying to take over the Holy Land and bend it to my terms. 

“We’re tourists here,” she said. “We bring spirituality to this place. New faith in an old city. It needs us. Now give some and you’ll get something back.”

I gave her the little blue cross. She smiled and put it in her pocket. 

The Garden of Gesthemane

The next morning was my last day in Jerusalem. I woke up before dawn and went on a directionless stroll. An hour later, as the sun was coming up, I was surprised to find myself in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.  This is where, in the Biblical narrative, Jesus wept “tears like blood” and, knowing his death was imminent, asked God to “let this cup pass from my lips.”

The humanity of this moment washed over me as if I was in a warm Jacuzzi with a belly- and head-  full of cold, bubbly champagne and entangled with a vivacious Latina. 

Most people want that “cup to pass from their lips.”

It won’t.

But we’re all in this together. And someone, somewhere, right now, is praying and feeling a strong love for all the peoples in the world. That includes you and me.

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