I just spent the day in al-Quds (aka Jerusalem)! You know, the holy city for Muslims, Christians and Jews, one of the oldest cities in the world (dates from 4th century BCE), the city where Jesus was crucified, the city the Crusades were fought over…no big deal.
No, in all seriousness – what the what?!? Too good to be true!
George, Mariam, Stephen and I woke up early this morning, had eggs with zaatar, pita bread and olives for breakfast and then piled into the car. The drive to Jerusalem took us somewhere between 30-45 minutes + a passport check at the Jerusalem checkpoint and we were in! As we drove into the city, George was pointing out the distinctions between East Jerusalem, which is Palestinian and West Jerusalem, which is Israeli – it’s bizarre to see the similarities and contrasts of these peoples living side by side. Our first stop, was at the top of the Mount of Olives for an insane view over all of the city.
After our scenic detour we made our way down to the Damascus Gate, one of the main entrances into the old city. A gate has stood at that spot since at least the 2nd century A.D., constructed by the Romans, under the rule of Hadrian. However, the gate that stands there today, was built in the mid-1500s by the Ottomans, under the rule of Suleman the Magnificent. Sweet!
When you enter through the gate, you’re right in the middle of the souk (market) that runs through the center of the old city. All of a sudden, you’re bombarded with thousands of different colors and smells, fabrics and foods, jewelry and carvings – it’s amazing!! I can’t do it justice with descriptions so I’ll just post some photos 🙂
In the end, we couldn’t resist the allure of the intoxicating smells wafting from the sweet shops, and made a stop in the souk for some hot knafe, which is probably my all time favorite Lebanese pastry. Oh and get this, apparently, a couple days ago, a Palestinian guy set the Guinness Record for making the world’s largest knafe. This man is my HERO.
Bellies stuffed and huge smiles plastered on our faces we wound our way out of the souk and over to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So, if you didn’t know, a sepulchre is “a small room or monument, cut in rock or built of stone, in which a dead person is laid or buried.” So the Church took its name from Jesus’ sepulchre, which lies inside the church. Yup. That’s right. This is where Jesus was buried. Insanity.
The church was built in the early-300s CE, under the rule of the Roman emperor Constantine I – you know – the first Christian Roman Emperor, the guy who changed Byzantium to Constantinople. Constantine’s mom, Helena, was one of those people who always needed a project – kind of like my Mom. So, Constantine gave her the task of going through the Holy Land (which was then all part of his empire), digging up all the Christian relics, and building churches on the sites of her finds to promote them.
Now, before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed, there was a temple to Venus standing on the site. Helena was not a fan of Greco-Roman paganism, so she had Venus’s Jerusalem temple demolished. I’m not saying that Venus cursed her for it, but Helena did get divorced and was never remarried so…who knows? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d say, when in doubt, don’t do anything to piss off the goddess of love.
Anyway, after Helena had it demolished, she decided to excavate under the ruins of the former temple. According to legend, during these excavations three crosses were uncovered. Helena thought that one of the crosses might be the ‘True Cross’ that Christ was crucified on, so to test her theory she supposedly let a sick woman touch all three crosses. After touching the third cross the woman was healed, Helena decided that meant the cross was the ‘True Cross’ (meaning that this must have been the site of Jesus’ crucifixion) and she ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the spot. The church also contains the ‘Angel’s Stone’, a piece of the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb, and his sepulchre itself which was discovered during the construction of the Church.
I’ve never been a particularly religious person, by I do have to say that it’s incredibly moving to see people from all over the world coming to this church. They believe so completely in the power of the church and the relics inside – everyone’s crying, lighting candles, kissing the stone that Jesus was laid upon after he was taken off the cross. And they’ve been doing this for centuries now! Big example – Crusaders used to visit this church and they would carve small crosses into one of the church walls – sort of a ‘I was here’ mark. The wall is covered with hundreds of crosses now. It’s amazing!
One kind of funny tidbit about the church – sometime in the early-mid 1800s, someone was washing the church windows or repairing part of the exterior, and placed a wooden ladder on the facade of the church. The guy forgot his ladder, years passed and no one ever moved it. And now the ladder, which is still there, has come to be called ‘The immovable ladder.’ Tourists take photos of it. And just like that this guy’s forgotten ladder has become a part of this church. Can’t help but smile at that 😉
After visiting the church, we were walking around the city when we bumped into an old friend of George’s, Albert. When George was around my age, he was working as a photojournalist in Palestine, met Albert and ended up renting a room from him during his stay. The two have been friends ever since. When we ran into Albert, he was sitting outside with some of his friends, smoking their narghiles and drinking tea. We sat down and joined them.
Albert’s stories were all in Arabic, but I hear he’s a crack up. And honestly, this dude talks more than I do. It was impressive.